Reviews

Alison MacLeod's All The Beloved Ghosts offer stories of the heart that brim with tension

Alison MacLeod projects her imagination into people's lives in All The Beloved Ghosts.
Alison MacLeod projects her imagination into people's lives in All The Beloved Ghosts.PHOTO: KATE MACLEOD PHOTOGRAPHY

Alison MacLeod's All The Beloved Ghosts is an evocative, masterfully written collection of 12 stories that invokes and creatively re-imagines familial and historical "ghosts".

The stories range from one about the author's great-aunt set in 1920s Nova Scotia, to tales spun from the public lives of historical and literary icons such as Princess Diana, American poet Sylvia Plath and Russian writer Anton Chekhov.

The lines between reality and fiction, and the living and the dead, are constantly blurred. Often it is MacLeod who does the haunting, stepping in and projecting the workings of her imagination onto episodes in these people's lives.

The stories are linked by a clever subterranean pattern. We go from the London underground to the Stygian underworld; from semen- filled test tubes to faulty bathroom pipes. And central to all 12 stories are matters of the heart, be it in the form of romantic entanglements or a cardiologist awaiting a heart transplant.

  • ALL THE BELOVED GHOSTS

  • Alison MacLeod projects her imagination into people's lives in All The Beloved Ghosts.By Alison MacLeod

    Bloomsbury Publishing

    Paperback/ 235 pages/$29.95/ Books Kinokuniya

    4.5/5 stars

One of the more compelling stories is In Praise Of Radical Fish, about three aspiring terrorists who embark on a "pre-jihad team-building weekend" in Brighton, England. Their ideals are comically deflated when they realise it is not easy, after all, to become radicalised in a seaside resort.

Another gem is Dreaming Diana: Twelve Frames, whose narrator intersperses scenes from her love life with those from Princess Diana's to create an "uncanny double-exposure of our own private griefs".

MacLeod is fascinated by states of "in-betweenness": A woman on the cusp of 30 travels over thawing ice; Plath's signature red fades into a more muted hue in Sylvia Wears Pink In The Underworld; Oscillate Wildly takes its name from an instrumental track by The Smiths, haunted by the absence of vocals from frontman Morrissey.

But oscillate wildly is one thing MacLeod does not do in her book. Her writing is intricately wrought and moves with incredible subtlety.

And while it is full of clever inversions and structural twists, these hardly seem contrived. No word is misplaced: this is an author in full control of her craft.

Like MacLeod's 2013 novel Unexploded, All The Beloved Ghosts brims with tension. The placid surface of her prose rarely breaks, making the impact of certain lines all the more shocking: "When she (Princess Diana) was prised at last from the Mercedes and stretched out in the ambulance, a tear in a vein near her heart opened wide."

But the book is, in some ways, a casualty of its own success. For all its references to global affairs and pop culture - the Iraq war, Jaws and Fatboy Slim - there are bits that seem involuted, as the author descends into a kind of self-communion.

We press our ears to the surface of MacLeod's prose, struggling to pick up the signs of a heart beating.

While All The Beloved Ghosts is nothing short of impressive, its wintry restraint can go only so far in endearing the book to readers, many of whom will find it easier to admire than love.

If you liked this book, read: The Virgin Suicides (Picador, 2009, $22.95, Books Kinokuniya), Jeffrey Eugenides' sensuous debut novel set in 1970s Michigan which reflects on the lives of the Lisbon daughters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2017, with the headline 'Stories of the heart brim with tension'. Print Edition | Subscribe