Beyond the big sleep

5th August 2005 at 01:00
David Buckley chooses haunting tales that use ghostly devices to tackle loss, bullying and family break-up


By Sarah Singleton

Simon Schuster pound;5.99

Wenny Has Wings

By Janet Lee Carey

Faber and Faber pound;5.99

The Invisible Friend

By Louise Arnold

Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99

The Silent Pool

By Griselda Gifford

Andersen Press pound;4.99

Sarah Singleton's Century is a novel of beauty, a tale of darkness opening up into light and of life regained. Mercy Verga is as familiar with ghosts as a teacher is with children. Young ones scamper past on the corridor; older ones glide through the library. But a new ghost - a woman trapped under the ice and mouthing silent words - startles her and sets her asking questions about her strange lifestyle.

Mercy and her sister Charity wake after sunset and retire before dawn, obeying the dictates of their distantly loving father. Through the night they live a standard daytime routine, attending lessons taught by their governess and chatting to the cook as she prepares the meals. But each day is the same and Mercy and Charity are re-living the same day, trapped in time. Mercy could be 13, or 113. She seems to have no memories of the past.

Her mother has died, but she does not know how or when, until a mysterious meeting in the family chapel prompts her to push against the cloudy walls of her temporal prison to uncover the family's secrets.

It is hard to do this novel justice without giving away its many surprises, but Sarah Singleton has woven the threads of a traditional ghost story into a uniquely fresh pattern about surviving loss, the folly of fearing the passage of time, and the sustaining power of memory.

Janet Lee Carey also tackles big issues in Wenny Has Wings, which, like Century, has the power to reduce you to tears. But whereas Sarah Singleton reflects on life and mortality through elaborate fabrication, Janet Lee Carey tackles head-on a difficult issue for a children's book, namely the death of a young sibling.

Eleven-year-old Will North was crossing the road with his seven-year-old sister Wenny when they were hit by a truck. He "died" for a few moments; Wenny died forever. But during his near-death experience Will found himself flying with Wenny "in a river of light". Will holds on to this image of optimism as he tries to come to terms with his sister's death by writing her a series of letters that chronicle family life in the months following the accident.

Gentle humour gives a bittersweet taste to Will's memories. When a friend asks Wenny to knock three times at a seance, Will wryly comments, "She's more likely to kick your shin or something." But the episodic narrative lacks the powerful pull of storytelling. And although the novel seems to tackle some of the difficulties when Will's attempts to cheer the family up get him sent to his room, and he gets angry with his dead sister for losing his best magnet, it's hard not to feel manipulated by the sentimentalisation of a horrific situation. A tearfest for adults, this is a book I'd be wary of lending to a bereaved child for fear of putting too much faith in the healing power of art.

Much more fun is Louise Arnold's whimsical and witty first novel, The Invisible Friend. Eleven-year-old Tom is being bullied at his new secondary school. Grey Arthur is a boy ghost with time on his hands, who "hears" the emotions of the living. He goes rushing to help Tom as an invisible friend after sensing his misery, tracking him down in a school "so loud with emotions that Arthur was worried his ears might actually drop off". This is a friendly, cuddly novel full of cute little ghosts such as Woeful William who makes all humans sigh, and the Mischief Twins, who harvest socks from laundry baskets so we're always struggling to match pairs.

The resolution is disappointing, as Tom still suffers from bullying, but the story is not at all scary and its easy, read-aloud style makes it suitable for middle primary years and upwards, though afterwards you might hear about children talking to the fluff under their beds.

It's funny how tomboys in novels are always lucky enough to have been given unisex names, and in The Silent Pool by Griselda Gifford it is definitely Charlie who wears the athletics shorts rather than her sensitive twin sister Cass. Intrigued by murderous and frightened ghosts running from an island, Charlie plunges into the water in whatever she's wearing to tackle a century-old murder and the cries for help coming from the family tomb.

Set in the grounds of a stately home owned by the cursed Clermont family, this is Midsomer Murders country, but how much easier Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby would find his job if, like Charlie, he could see the ghosts of his victims being murdered afresh each day. This is an engaging mystery that runs alongside a story of coming to terms with family break-up, and trying not to take sides between mum and dad.

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