Sunday, September 29, 2013

My Ghosts

My Ghosts / Mary Swan
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2013.
281 p.

What a beautiful read! This novel is just my thing: it looks at generations of a family, weaving memory and chance and connection into a long chain of storytelling. It begins in 1879, in a large family based in Toronto. Both parents are dead and the siblings are creating their own strong family unit, which carries through the book. (Full disclosure up front: this group was my favourite of all the characters)

Through their marriages, new family connections are created, and the next generation arrives with their own stories. Then we hear from the mother of one of the new spouses (a wonderful section) and much later, from two young women travelling Europe in the 70's who don't realize they are related -- but we see the links.

There are sorrows, joys, laughter, bitterness, dark episodes, hope, growth, love... it is a marvellous book. It takes us through the World Wars, into the raucous 70's, right up to our present. It follows characters from youth to old age, or not to old age depending on their fate. We see various perspectives of characters in different episodes. It all feels quite like looking through the old family album, which two of the characters actually do at one point.

I can't really summarize plot for this: starting with Clare in 1879, sick in bed with a dangerous fever, and ending with Clare, a widow in her 60's today, this family tree is more like a vine, twisting and turning unexpected corners, entangling itself in multiple directions. Names, characteristics, and even similar experiences recur as we move through the hundred years and more that the story covers. Plot is not exactly the point.

Characters and the gorgeous language are really key here. That and the sense of Toronto and Southern Ontario more generally, where all the characters tend to stick to, with excursions to Greece and to the wilder 19th century West in parts. There are lovely phrases to ponder, and many small details of family life that Swan notices, the small things that make individuals of our relatives -- the tendency to be sharp-tongued, a propensity for accidents, habits of behaviour, and so forth. There are so many intriguing women in this book, too, from first generations and on (but especially the first ones for me).

Here are a few bon mots that I marked in my reading:

It's not a thing she's thought before, but it makes sense to Clare if that's what Heaven is. Not a place, exactly, but something like a fold, like the part of a let-down hem that has stayed as bright and clean as it was in the beginning, while all the rest fades and fades. Maybe there is a fold like that in time, a sort of sidestep that lets you stay with the ones you loved, lets you watch them and hold them up. But no work to be done, no fretting or cares.

How can it be, that all that time has vanished? All the days and years we walked through together, my same hand turning down the lantern, night after night. A silly question to be asking myself, no point in wondering, no answer. Like the rules of light and shadow, some things just are as they are, and the only way is to start from there and carry on.

The space between them now is tumbled with separate memories, from the time Nan was gone, and with their separate thoughts...She thinks how most of the pleasure goes out of the remembering when there's no one to really share it with.

As you might notice by now, the thoughtful, quiet and deliberate pace of this tale caught me right away. I loved this book, though the end section went on a little too long about Greece for my preferences. I just wanted to get back to Toronto -- and that's not something I say every day ;)

A lovely book that I think needs sharing. What a pleasure it was. The Montreal Gazette says it has a  "purity of voice" and I think that is the perfect phrase to describe it.


  1. Plot is not exactly the point--sounds like my kind of book. Wonderful review, Melwyk.

  2. 'and the only way is to start from there and carry on.' My philosophy of life precisely. I hope this available in the UK.

    1. That's a quote from the mother of the new brother in law -- her section is quite thoughtful and practical.

  3. I tend to prefer books with strong plots, but this sounds fascinating! I love family portraits, historical connections, and a strong sense of place.

    1. It was fascinating -- though there were a few loose ends here and there I really, really liked it. Beautifully written,


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