Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ghost Stories

The Small Hand, Susan Hill
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, Penelope Lively

One of the books that had the biggest impact on me last year was Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing, which had been recommended through a Dunnett group. Every page felt like part of a conversation about books and reading that I never wanted to end - even though we disagree about Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett, but at least she properly appreciates Trollope.  And Hill introduced me to two other authors, the Rev. Francis Kilvert with his amazing diaries from the 1870s; and Patrick Leigh Fermor and his travel narratives, possibly the best writer I have ever read.  She also reintroduced me to Nancy Mitford - and from there I've discovered Deborah Devonshire and her collaborations with Charlotte Mosely, especially a book of the "Mitford girls'" letters over 50 years.

Last week an email from MBTB announced that they had Hill's new book, The Small Hand, subtitled "A Ghost Story."  The main character, Adam Snow, is an antiquarian book dealer.  One evening, lost in country backroads, he stops at an overgrown garden, where he feels a small hand slip into his. Adam uncovers more about the garden and its designer, and the hand leads him into the past (literally, I think, though I was a bit confused by that bit).  His work as a book dealer leads him to a Trappist monastery in France that holds a First Folio - and that section reflects Hill's great admiration for PLF's A Time to Keep Silence.  This is well-written, a fast read with some chilling moments and a couple of major twists, the ending of which left me with some questions (was the old woman in the house real?).

The second ghost story is a children's book, one that won the 1973 Carnegie Medal - and I can see why.  I have loved Penelope Lively's books since I came across City of the Mind, which is my favorite book about London. I had recently read her autobiography Oleander, Jacaranda (too long on the TBR pile), and was reminded that her early books were children's books.  The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was the first one I could get from the library.  Like Hill's it is a ghost story rooted in history - and very much a Lively book, from the characters and the dialogue to the awareness of the layers of history, of other lives lived before us, which always hits me so clearly in England. I thought this was a marvelous book - without the grues of Hill's book, but a rich story.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!