The Hungry Ghosts by Anne Berry and White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
10 August 2009
For the past hundred or so years, the ghost story has in some ways been a tale of two Jameses: Henry and M.R., who between them helped define the literary approach to the genre. Both contrasted the supernatural elements of their ghost stories with those stories' everyday settings, leaving their readers to find the horror of the tales in the gap between the two. The realism and restrained prose of this literary style eschewed the flowery verbiage of the Gothic tradition, but also its insistence on the reality of the spectres: Elizabeth Gaskell, in her own forays into the Gothic, left us in no doubt that "The Old Nurse's Story" featured truly supernatural goings-on; Henry James, on the other hand, whether in "The Jolly Corner" or "The Turn of the Screw", weaves his story in such a way that we—and generations of critics following—could never quite be sure.
The ambiguity of the ghost, the way in which it can be seen in such stories as much as a manifestation of a psychological condition as an ectoplasmic ghoul, leaves the reader at arm's length from the spirit world. Even a classic of the form, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959), leaves the reader in doubt as to the reality of the ghost; this very year, Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger (2009) practically revels in the uncertainty of its central premise. Writers like Stephen King and Daphne du Maurier have made great play of the more literal ghosts featured in some of their stories, yet consistently the more literary writer affects that distance, that psychological mystery, which perhaps heightens the shiver up the spine—was that a glimpse of something or just our imagination?—whilst leaving the reader perhaps just a little non-plussed: should we believe in the ghost or not? What is this story about?
Writers should not, of course, be criticised for making this choice—Sarah Waters, for instance, seems to me to have in her sights the extent to which at times no explanation, theory or system can fully cover the facts—but the success of their resulting stories can be judged by how deftly they juggle all these nods and winks. Take Anne Berry's debut novel The Hungry Ghosts, the first title to be published under HarperCollins's Blue Door imprint. It draws strongly on Berry's own childhood in Hong Kong, and is the story of Alice Safford, the daughter of a major government official in that island's colonial administration[, from the 1960s until the handover to the Chinese in 1997]. Alice is from the moment we meet her the victim of rejection: at her birth, her mother is so dismayed at delivering a third girl, rather than the boy she believes her husband craves, that Alice is literally pushed away; her relationship with her mother never improves, and her sisters—though not her eventual brother—follow Mrs Safford's lead. (Mrs Safford, first name Myrtle, is, incidentally, the crowning achievement of the book: funny, odious, vulnerable and over-weening, her sections of the narrative represent a perfectly human exercise of malicious self-justification.) Only Alice's father, Ralph, shows her love—and, though devoted, he is too often submerged in an increasingly difficult job.
Alice is thus born into a world of constant sorrow, and where Berry borrows from the Gothic it is in that sense of impending doom: there is very little in the way of lightness in this book, even though it is written very gently, and comic relief is frequent; characters lose love, commit suicide, and fail to reach lifelong goals. The Hungry Ghosts is a sort of misery memoir writ large—not for nothing is it being marketed as for people who enjoyed The Lovely Bones (2002), itself a story with little to sing and dance about (and, incidentally, one unapologetically narrated by a dead person). If this makes it sound modish, then perhaps it is: its chapters are short, its narrative clear, and its structure, though curling non-linearly at either end, less than adventurous; but it is also not without intelligence.
Specifically, its social and political criticism shows thought: colonial government, in which native Chinese are reduced to the roles of domestic servants and obsequious waiters, their masters baffled when they riot and infuriated by their ingratitude, is excoriated; the white ruling class consume almost orgiastically. "We lorded it over them in luxury," opines Ralph of the period. (p. 75) The Saffords hold parties and dinners, live literally and figuratively above the natives, and fill their kitchens and drinks cabinets to bursting. Harry, the son Myrtle finally gives to Ralph, grows obese on his mother's indulgence, whilst his eldest sister Jillie develops bulimia (literally wasting food) and the middle girl Nicola loses herself in constant and sordid one-night stands. Myrtle, meanwhile, is an alcoholic. Only Alice, practically anorexic, is conspicuous by her lack of consumption. All this creates an air of privilege misused, and the pampered family descend into dysfunction.
The Hungry Ghosts is, then, a family saga. It takes place over 40 years and its plot is dependent upon the broken ways in which the Safford family operates. Yet its opening chapter is narrated by a soul unrelated to them, indeed one who dies twenty years before the Saffords' story begins. Lin Shui is a girl in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong, who is brutally raped and then murdered in 1942 (again, the novel's sunny disposition). As a ghost, however, she is "unable to accept I have no future" (p. 1); this is explicitly linked to the injustice of her death (and identical to the premise of The Lovely Bones). The traditional Chinese Festival of the Hungry Ghosts is described by Harry as a time when "people who've been murdered, or died at sea, or in a war and haven't had a funeral or been buried properly, will come tearing back to earth" (p. 56). Much is made in The Hungry Ghosts of the inevitability of reckoning: Nicola's selfish supposition that "things only seem awful when you put yourself in someone else's shoes" (p. 92) is shown emphatically not to be the case.
In this sense, Lin Shui serves a strong purpose throughout the book: she is the reminder of sins past, of the restlessness of the injured. Yet, even as Alice begins to be surrounded by other undeservedly injured spirits—the ghost of her dog, for instance, whose body is thrown over a bridge by Myrtle—she is confused by the presence of Lin Shui. As late as page 217, she asks of her dog, "Do you know who she is?" This is the first time we hear Alice even acknowledge her ghost's presence. The ghost, too, is not beyond self-centredness: "His death is not nearly as dramatic as mine," is her tart assessment of one character's demise (p. 292).
What to make of this, then? The Hungry Ghosts is recounted in piecemeal by recurring voices—mostly those of the immediate family and the ghost—and we slowly have secrets revealed to us. Yet we know potentially the biggest—the identity of the ghost—from the off. The book's focus, then, is assuredly not upon the supernatural. Late in the book, Harry refers to reminders of his childhood in Hong Kong in much the way we might describe Lin Shui: "I do not want this ghost from the past stalking me in the present, dragging unwelcome baggage from the island behind her" (p. 334). In this way, Lin Shui functions in the story less as an honest-to-goodness ghost and more as a physical reminder of the injustices doled out in Hong Kong. Though she is visible only to Alice, her poltergeist-like behaviour is very obvious to other characters: "Something's not right with Alice," remarks one, confusing culprits (p. 233). The other hungry ghosts serve much the same purpose—indeed, they disappear when Alice is shown kindness, as if the salving of her own injustices, the distancing of the pain they cause her, renders the ghosts less necessary to her. It must be Lin Shui's choice to leave the world and to let go of her own pain, and ultimately the two women find peace by returning to the site of their injury, but the book's focus is rarely on this story; its interests lie with the Saffords, and its ghosts—attracted and attached to Alice by her pre-existing psychological frailty—feel at times unnecessary to the story. They are not quite metaphors—they have physical effects which are difficult otherwise to explain—but at times they are treated little better.
In a book that is narrated in part by one of them, this problem of spectral characterisation is surprising. In White is for Witching, also published this year, Helen Oyeyemi tackles the same problem. Again a story narrated by a revolving cast of characters, Oyeyemi's book also features a young woman with an eating disorder (this time her name is Miranda and she suffers from pica, characterized by an appetite for non-nutritive foods); it features, too, a family with gaps between them into which darkness falls. Oyeyemi's family—the recently widowed Luc Dufresne, and the children his wife, Lily, bore, Eliot and Miranda—is less dysfunctional than Berry's, but Miranda's delicate psychological state proves too much for their fraying connections to bear. This is due in large part to the machinations of the house in which they live, which Luc and Lily inherited from Lily's grandmother. The house is haunted—is itself a ghost—and it narrates a good part of the novel.
The house has been in Miranda's maternal line for years—it played host to Anna Good, Lily's grandmother, but also Lily's feckless and irresponsible mother, who disappeared shortly into Lily's childhood; and now, of course, it has Miranda within it. The house has proprietary feelings for the Goods: "Anna Good," it says, "you are long gone now, except when I resurrect you to play in my puppet show" (p. 24) Even Lily, who dies in Haiti covering, as a photographer, a period of political unrest, is conjured back by the house, and is seen by Eliot: "At least she is there," he comforts himself, "[. . . ] even if she is just a ghost and doesn't speak, at least she is" (p. 62). This is what characterizes Oyeyemi's ghosts: their relative lack of agency, the extent to which they are usually seen only by one other person, and usually do nothing except stand there. The house, as it admits, is the real puppet master.
There is something of Nicola Barker's superlative Darkmans (2007) in all this. The house is first given its malevolent powers by an incantation recited by a grief-stricken Anna Good, who loses her pilot husband in World War II and rages, "I hate them. [. . . ] Blackies, Germans, killers, dirty." In response, the house resolved, "We are on the inside, and we absolutely cannot have anyone else" (p. 118) In Darkmans, history stalks the steets of modern-day Ashford, Kent, returning to haunt—often bafflingly—the present day. In White is for Witching, the echoes of the past rattle around 29 Barton Road, physically impinging upon what the characters hope is a more modern world. "Modern life is medieval," is the motto of one character in Darkmans, and in Oyeyemi's own ghost story, the racist past is inescapable in the self-professedly enlightened present. For instance, the black housemaid hired by Luc is frequently attacked by the house: "White is for witching, so ti gbo? [. . . ] White is for witching," it taunts malevolently (p. 175).
Yet Ore, Miri's sometime girlfriend and the book's main black voice, finds racists a chimeric entity, failing to spot them on Miranda's local high street: "Where were they, the baddies? Did they ("They") spring up at night like toadstools? It was hard to believe in their existence" (p. 204) As in The Hungry Ghosts, then, the supernatural is used in White is for Witching as a way of making manifest the hidden: in Berry's case, the ghosts stand for the invisible injustices wreaked upon silent victims; in Oyeyemi's, the invisible, even traditional, racism of England is poured into that ghoulish house, which uses its long-gone inhabitants as tools in a twisted effort towards self-preservation.
Each of the characters in White is for Witching at one point or another sees something strange, something ghostly; even Lily took pictures which, in Eliot's opinion, only people "able to see ghosts" could take (p. 105). The haunting is far more a part of the fabric of Oyeyemi's story than Berry's; Miranda has her psychological problems to be sure—indeed, they're not a million miles from the conditions experienced by Oyeyemi's protagonists in The Icarus Girl, and one criticism of this novel when taken as part of an oeuvre is that it doesn't feel as fresh—but it is not they which create, which give space to, the spectral apparitions. The novel's climax, in which Ore cracks Miri open and "there was another girl inside" (p. 230) perhaps emphasises the novel's psychological dimension over much, but its supernatural element cannot be said to be unnecessary or merely illustrative: it is too complex and strange for that. There is a theme of doubleness threading its way through the book—Eliot and Miranda are twins, whom "Lily was always careful to pull [. . . ] apart, to make [them] understand that [they] were not each other" (p. 186)—and the soucouyant, Ore's explanation of the haunting, which latches onto Anna Good's occasionally violent manifestations, is described as "a double danger—[. . . the] danger of meeting her, and the danger of becoming her" (p. 155). Miranda's own doubleness, her crafting of one persona to hide another, becomes a facet in this storied haunting, rather than its primary focus, or even its raison d' être.
Oyeyemi's broken narration, the often non-linear nature of its plot progression, and the risks she takes with her often forgetful, always disjointed, narrators, makes White is for Witching a novel of great stylistic interest. At times, these attempts at gnomic, unconventional poetry don't come off—what, for instance, does "she didn't so much think of Ore as think her" (p. 169) actually mean? But in taking these risks, Oyeyemi adds greater depth and mystery to what could be seen as a fairly simple story. The point is not to elucidate or teach but almost to revel in obscurity: "Who do you believe?" the house asks us. "Well? [. . . ] Our talk depends upon the fact that you weren't there and don't know what happened" (p. 226). In this way, Oyeyemi achieves a sort of rapture of ambiguity: all those literary antecedents ("Poe's quite good, actually" Miri remarks at one point. "The whole casual horror thing" [p. 93]) have utilised ambiguity to add a tingle to the spine, but White is for Witching confounds and confuses as the most terrifying of hauntings might.
In the London Review of Books, Thomas Jones recently characterised that other major ghost story of the year, The Little Stranger, as a book whose events have "no reason for them to happen at all." This seems off: for a ghost story to work, the ghost must have at least credibility—that is, at least the potential really to exist. A ghost is not some literary handwave, some cake the writer can have and then tuck into. Neither Berry or Oyeyemi make this mistake; but, whilst White is for Witching occasionally creaks under the strain of its own pretensions, it succeeds better than The Hungry Ghosts in, if you'll pardon the pun, giving life to its paranormal narrator. 29 Barton Road has its own twisted, alien, horrifying motives and logics which shape, challenge and transform the story in which it features; on the other hand, Lin Shui, though finding herself in a quite gripping family saga, never quite seems to exist beyond it. Spooky, yes. But not in the good way.