Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Quickening: A Ghost Story by Mari Biella. Reviewed by Catherine Czerkawska

It’s no secret that I love a good ghost story – and this is a very good ghost story indeed. The Quickening is an elegant, intelligent, entertaining and very scary piece of writing: somewhere between a traditional country house haunting and a psychological thriller, with elements of both. You can trace its roots to the stories of both Montague and Henry James and a few other Victorian paranormal writers. There are echoes of the later ghost stories of Susan Hill. But essentially, this novel stands alone as a brilliant portrayal of what I came to think of as a sort of restrained foreboding. 

 ‘Mine is a story of mystery and of misunderstandings, and of good intentions that went miserably astray. It is a story of death, too, and whatever might follow bodily death: and that, perhaps, is the greatest and most troubling mystery of all.’

The novel – which begins in the late summer of 1897 - is narrated by Lawrence Fairweather, a youngish married man, a botanist who has a private income and therefore, like so many young men of his time, has no real need to work. He has little to absorb his mind. He claims to be a rationalist and of course he is: an intelligent and down-to-earth man with no time for religion. But his rational beliefs are ill suited to his present situation. And that is one of the most intriguing themes in this thoroughly intriguing novel.

Almost immediately, we are aware that something traumatic has befallen Lawrence and his wife, Julia. The couple have been travelling abroad for several months and are now returning to their house in England.

Back then, I thought that houses were but stone and wood, and had no power other than that which we chose to bestow on them,’ says Lawrence, adding ominously, ‘I was utterly wrong; and had I known that, I would never have set foot in that godforsaken place ever again.’

The country house to which they are returning is in the Fens – evocatively described, the very monotony of this bleak landscape, as autumn and then winter approaches, somehow adding to the atmosphere of slowly encroaching threat. Halfway House it is not a particularly old house. It is shockingly ordinary: a ‘plain and unaffected building’ much as Lawrence would claim to be a plain and unaffected young man, a man of science. There is no age-old ghostliness or ghastliness here to explain the story. No. This is a much more subtle and therefore much more threatening tale.

We soon become aware that the couple have a young daughter, Hazel, who has stopped speaking. Doctors have been consulted. There is no physiological reason for this so we must again assume some intense psychological trauma. And there is a housekeeper, Mrs Jessop, a pleasant and concerned servant who has been minding the house while the little family has been travelling. But not sleeping there. She will not sleep there. And as Lawrence observes, ‘She looked weary and worn... Great dark shadows ringed her eyes, and her skin seemed as dry and creased as parchment paper.

This is where and how it all begins. The family returns – as why should they not come home? - the housekeeper welcomes them, and then, ‘here, amongst these quiet rooms and empty hallways, something had quickened and come to life.’

Soon the reason behind the disquiet emerges. I won’t spoil it by naming it here, since that too is very carefully and deliberately handled. Among so much else, I found myself admiring the consistency of the voice of the narrator. Mari Biella has most certainly crept inside his head and taken us, her readers, with her – and this is no mean feat. The haunting, when it comes, is low key, subtle, carefully managed by an author in command of her material and in command of her own prose. It is none the less frightening. There is a suffocating, profoundly disturbing quality to the whole novel – relentless but relentlessly fascinating too. I couldn’t help but read on and was sometimes genuinely haunted by the kind of nameless and indistinct fears experienced by the characters – and by the uneasy sense that the narrator himself may not be entirely reliable.

Which makes this into a genuinely frightening proposition. A tour de force of the imagination. Read it by night and be afraid. Be very afraid.

The Quickening: A Ghost Story is available on Amazon's Kindle store.