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My Ghosts

by Mary Swan

With her second novel, author Mary Swan seems to be issuing a challenge to readers: pay attention. It’s not just that her book is complex, layered, and boasts a large cast of characters – though all of those things are true. The story demands that the reader do more than merely observe. Swan insists the reader become actively engaged. “And you?” she seems to be asking. “What do you remember? Who do you think you are?”

Swan’s 2008 debut novel, The Boys in the Trees (shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize), solidified the author’s credentials as a literary talent possessed of a unique eloquence. The story of the aftermath of an unfathomable crime in a small 19th-century town, the book featured several narrators, each providing a different perspective on the event. The result more closely resembled linked short stories than a traditional, linear narrative, but using the crime as the centre around which everything else revolved prevented the structure from wandering off course.

In My Ghosts, Swan employs a similar tactic. Again, the setting is historical (the book spans roughly 150 years, starting in 1879), the mood is sombre, and each section focuses on a different character. This time, however, there is no pivot point to build around, and the meandering plot may deter some readers who are intolerant of the more esoteric aspects of capital “L” literature.

The first section of the book lays the foundation, introducing the characters who will be referenced in the narratives that follow, and the themes that will permeate their stories. Swan bookends her tale with protagonists named Clare (there are many instances of names repeating, as they often do in families over generations). The first is a 16-year-old who lives in a poor area of Toronto with her brothers and sisters, and is recovering from a bout of rheumatic fever. Clare spends ages either sleeping or thinking. What she thinks about most often is time: “Thinking about what it is and why it is. Thinking about how it can be Eternal, and yet gone forever.” 

It is impossible to think about time without also thinking about the past, and soon Clare is beset by memories: of her dead parents, their first-born son, Wee Alan – whom everyone seems to have a story about even though he died before much of the novel’s cast was born – and her siblings, who come to life through her recollections. It is a poorly kept secret that Clare is the illegitimate child of the eldest surviving brother, Ross, who disappeared shortly after her arrival in the household. Her integration and acceptance by the others was seamless, however, and no one really cares whom she belonged to originally. She is theirs as much as they are hers.

This, too, is a recurring theme. Every generation seems to include a child shuffled off to live with relatives, most often due to the sudden death of the child’s parents. In every instance, the child (or in one case, an elderly “aunt”) is welcomed with open arms. The message seems to be a simple one – blood is thicker than water – but family relationships are fraught with complexities. It shouldn’t be so easy to accept Swan’s version of familial harmony, but her characters are so multifaceted and authentic that the reader is inclined to suspend disbelief.

By the time we reach the final section, with modern-day Clare as protagonist, we have a sketchy history of her forebears, and can more easily appreciate her eccentricities and recognize the provenance of some traits. Clare – recently widowed, newly retired, and about to move out of the family home – is in a state of existential crisis that many will find relatable. The theme of time recurs, but in more accessible fashion. “They’ve always happened, she realizes, these moments when she seems to wake up and wonder where she’s been, sometimes for years. I’m a ghost haunting my own life, she thinks, and then says, ‘What on Earth does that mean?’” At some point, each protagonist experiences a similar moment of self-recognition.

Though the Clares are among the stronger protagonists – the first Clare’s sister, Kez, and half-sister, Bella, being the others – some of the characters’ stories feel superfluous. As we move further away from the original siblings, we lose some of our feeling of connection and investment. We want to know how their stories end, much like the long-dead relatives whose photos grace the dusty albums on the shelf. But we are often left with only snippets of stories, memories that have been transformed into legends. In the end, Swan’s ghosts haunt us, not only for the beauty of their distinct voices, but for the questions they leave unanswered.