John Boyne is one of Ireland’s most-versatile writers; over the past 14 years he’s written eight novels for adults and four for children. His most-recent book is This House is Haunted, a classic ghost story.
“I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father.”
This great opening line sets the scene perfectly for a 19th-century ghost story. Beginning in London in 1867, the story concerns a 21-year-old woman, Eliza Caine, whose father dies suddenly. In her grief she takes a job as a governess at a decaying old manor house, Gaudlin Hall, in rural Norfolk, where mysterious things are afoot.
I want to be careful about what I reveal about the plot because so much of the pleasure lies in uncovering the secrets of what exactly happened at Gaudlin Hall along with Eliza. Suffice to say, she arrives in the middle of the night, the man who meets her at the station says a few cryptic things, and then she finds only two children living in the manor. As the days pass, she becomes aware that there have been five governesses before her, all within the space of one year. What exactly is happening at Gaudlin Hall?
The ghost story is an old genre — perhaps the very oldest — and Boyne knows his readers are well aware of what to expect, and he does a very good job of setting up our expectations only to surprise us with a different twist. Charles Dickens may have popped up in the first chapter, but rather than a moralistic story designed to make us mend out wicked ways, Boyne serves up an often-chilling tale of elemental anger and uncanny events. He does add his own twist, which introduces a redemptive note, when it become apparent that there is more than one disruptive spirit at work in Gaudlin Hall, but to say much more would be to deprive the reader of some of the joy of the novel.
Reading John Boyne and Audrey Magee’s novels back-to-back has been causing me to wonder why many Irish authors write historical novels set outside of Ireland so very well? Perhaps, it’s a legacy of our colonial heritage? A colonized people have to pay close attention to the history and mores of their oppressors, and as Ireland moved into its independence in close economic kinship with first Great Britain and now Europe, the attention to life outside our island has remained an important consideration. We produce a large number of foreign correspondents, international aid-volunteers, emigrants, and others whose focus is on the world beyond our shores, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that many of our finest novelists now spend more of their time writing about the wider world than earlier generations? Colum McCann and John Boyne are two of the most-prominent Irish novelists who display this preference for international subject matter, but others — like Colm Toibin (The Master, The Testament of Mary), Nuala ní Chonchúir (her third novel, scheduled for 2015, concerns the poet Emily Dickinson), and young writers like Audrey Magee (The Undertaking) and Darragh McKeon (whose debut novel, All That is Solid Melts into the Air, concerns the Chernobyl disaster) — are now focusing on horizons far beyond Dublin Bay or Dunfanaghy.
I don’t know that this represents anything other than the tastes and interests of a handful of writers — perhaps this time next year there’ll be nothing but earnest novels about austerity? — or the steady improvement in the Irish educational system over the generations, but it does reflect the vibrancy and diversity of contemporary Irish writing, and that’s something to be celebrated.
Circling back to John Boyne’s quietly engrossing ghost story, I admired it mostly as a master-class in atmospheric writing and economic storytelling. This House is Haunted is a very well-told tale and, although it’ll keep you up all night, it’s unlikely to inspire you to sleep with the light on.
The US edition of This House is Haunted is published by Other Press.