Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Quickening by Mari Biella. Review by Bill Kirton

Susan Hill is quoted as the most accomplished of our contemporary writers of ghost stories. She’s certainly an excellent writer but, for me, her work isn’t remotely scary or disturbing. The Woman in Black is touted as a masterpiece of the genre and yet I found it predictable and devoid of the chills everyone seems to ascribe to it. This no doubt says more about me than about Ms Hill, and her fans will probably not even have bothered reading this far in my review. And, even if they have, they’ll consider me unqualified to comment on anything in the genre.

But it’s the fact that others have compared Mari Biella’s The Quickening with Ms Hill’s works that provokes my remarks because to me there seems to be a significant difference between the approach of the two writers and the impact of their stories. Ms Biella makes no assumptions about the reader’s susceptibilities. All aspects of her story, the rational and the immanent, are given equal weight. Her characters and their relationships are beautifully, carefully drawn and delineated. She knows them so well and follows their shifts of mood and their changing perceptions with the lightest and yet surest of touches. Her writing is measured, thoughtful. She chooses the words she puts into her first person narrator’s mouth with care and skilfully reproduces the tone and rhythms of the late Victorian era in which the events take place. Most of all, her book’s uniqueness stems from the fact that she manages to close the gap between the rational and the supernatural which sceptics like myself find so difficult to negotiate.

The vast, impossible distance between the quick and the dead is, if not overcome, at least brought into question. The rational-minded Lawrence Fairweather despairs at his wife’s persistent refusal to accept the loss of their younger daughter. His wish is to move on from the tragedy but the child’s continued ‘presence’ for his wife and their other daughter closes all avenues. It sits at the centre of the narrative, determining its pathways, insinuating itself into everything, challenging him.

His account of the events begins in apprehension. Its slow burn intensifies as the story builds and, as he relates details of changes in his wife, we become aware of subtle psychological changes in himself. Simultaneously, in the broader context, the opposing forces of the real and the imagined begin, barely perceptibly, to overlap as seemingly irreconcilable elements gradually merge and fuse.

The result is a shiver which is qualitatively distinct from that produced by more conventional hauntings. Here, the external trappings of the story – its historical period, geographical location, oppressive mood and surroundings – follow those conventions, but the hauntings are internal, of the mind. They occupy the same space as reason. And, even to a sceptic like myself, they seem to be equally valid.

This is an excellent work, a pleasure to read. Ms Biella makes the ghostly accessible, possible, legitimate.