It might be said that Canadian author Mary Swan’s latest novel, My Ghosts, isn’t for everyone. Readers, for example, who like their fiction ‘clean’ with a conventional layout, clearly defined plot twists and tidy character development might abandon Swan’s book as too difficult, too confusing or too slow, but these readers would be denying themselves an opportunity to experience beautiful, clever, artful writing which makes the extra effort worthwhile.
The book opens 1879 with Clare, a 16-year-old Scottish orphan living with her five adult siblings in a small house in Toronto. The book ends with another Clare, this one the great-great-grandniece of the first (if my calculations are correct), whose narration brings us through the 1980s and into the present. In between these familial bookends is an array of ‘ghosts,’ family voices which travel down the years, haunting the generations that come after with the seemingly insignificant decisions they have taken. To get off or stay on a train, to fight or give in to a raging fever, to speak out or endure the loneliness of a growing up in a silent house.
Swan’s writing, to be fair, is complex and sometimes fragmented just like the people she writes about. Her voices speak in whispers more often than shouts, and the reader must listen intently to get the most from them. But Swan’s work is also witty and poignant and shows that in a world where people are beginning to feel more and more invisible, someone is still watching and recording the frailties, randomness and joys of everyday life and letting them loose to haunt future generations.