Monday, May 30, 2011

Haunting Memories

A patron reminded me a few weeks ago of a great book we both loved, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, a gothic ghost tale published with much acclaim about 5 years ago.  It is the story of Vida Winters, a reclusive novelist who has invented many fabrications of her life history.  She is reaching the end of her days and wants to tell her “real” story to biographer Margaret Lea.  What emerges is a strange and twisting tale of the Angelfield family: beautiful and willful Isabelle, destructive Charlie, and the feral twins, Adeline and Emmeline.

The patron wanted to know if Setterfield had published anything since.  Alas no; it is her one and only novel.  However, we both wanted a good story to read.  So I set out on a quest to find some other novels that were similar in tone or style.  What I found took me on a journey across time and place and into a world that only books and the imagination can take you. 

The first destination on my journey was the world of fading glitz and glamour in the early 1920’s England with The House at Riverton byKate Morton.  In the summer of 1924, a young poet committed suicide during a society party at Riverton.  Two sisters, Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, witnessed the event and never spoke to each other again.  It is told through the eyes of 98 year old Grace who was a young maid at Riverton in the 20’s.  All these years, Grace has kept the secrets of Riverton, but ghosts are reawakened.  A suspenseful doom hangs over the book until the final secrets are revealed.  A really great read that transported me back in time.  For me, the most poignant part of the book was the innocence of spirit as the men headed off to World War I, while I as the reader knew what was going to happen to them. 

Next I turned to Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden.  This is a novel of short vignettes of Blackwell, Massachusetts’ 300 year haunting history from its founding until present day.  300 years of festering secrets, forbidden passions, and fierce loyalties, all entwined around a mysterious garden where everything planted turns red.   Hoffman’s characters are exquisitely drawn that left me wanting more long after the individual character’s story is told: the brave yet intrepid founder, the troubled civil war vet, the young suicidal widow who meets a mysterious traveler.  An interesting perspective on how an event becomes an unrecognizable legend through the mists of time.

My final journey took me to the imaginary world of hobgoblins and into a world where things really do go bump in the night with The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue.  Based on the poem by William Butler Yeats:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

7 year old Henry Day is stolen by the hobgoblins who rename him Aniday.  They leave another changeling in his place to live out his life as Henry Day.  This is the story of both Aniday and Henry as they struggle to both remember and forget their past lives.  The new Henry exhibits an astonishing musical ability that raises questions and leads to haunting memories of his own life before his time with the hobgoblins.  Donohue has written a wonderful bedtime story for adults with a mix of fantasy and realism.  The story is also a struggle for identity.  While I knew it was based on Yeats, I have to admit it was this stanza from Little Orphant Annie by James Whitcomb Riley that was echoing through my head:

Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn't say his prayers,--
An' when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an' his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An' when they turn't the kivvers down, he wuzn't there at all!
An' they seeked him in the rafter-room, an' cubby-hole, an' press,
An' seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an' ever'-wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an' roundabout:--
An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you