28th April 2000 at 01:00
My Brother's Ghost. By Allan Ahlberg. Puffin pound;7.99

Our enduring curiosity about the nature of death has spawned a wealth of ghoulish, ghostly adventures.

My Brother's Ghost is a redemptive rather than a hair-raising tale, however - an unconventional ghost story about love. Written for older readers, this beautifully produced novella has the distilled quality of a poem, every word hitting the mark.

Ahlberg combines his keen social observation, gentle offbeat humour and celebration of everyday domesticity to create the deeply moving, highly original story of two young orphans whose tragic lives are made bearable by the intervention of their brother's ghost.

Frances and Harry endure a solemn, sober and difficult life in 1950s Britain in the care of their humourless Auntie Marge. Their father has met a soldier's death in the Korean War; their mother has died in childbirth. Another splinter appears in their world when their protective older brother, Tom, is killed in a road accident. But Tom returns to manage unfinished business with his siblings.

As the sods drop into his grave he walks back into their lives - hair ishevelled and collar forever upturned as at the moment of death - to become their guardian angel.

Perhaps it is the death in 1994 of Janet, Allan Ahlberg's wife and illustrator, that has led Ahlberg to reflect so richly on the relationship between love and death. This is certainly a book both poignant and stimulating, full of surprises and illumination.

In all of his work, be it poetry or picture books, Ahlberg has thrilled readers with his masterful wit and playful ability to turn traditional themes inside out and back to front, as well as his elevation of family routine and details of the daily round into something funny and wonderful.

My Brother's Ghost is essential Ahlberg, yet the phrases and images are keener than ever, more disturbing, ruffling the subconscious.

The care with which words are weighed ensures that this book will become a classic. It is full of jewels such as: "Harry's life I think at that time had just curled up into a ball. He was somewhere inside, sitting it out." Such resonant phrases will compel readers, young and old, to return to this book time after time.


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