Reading Mary Swan’s new novel, My Ghosts, is like poring over a family album of old black and white photographs or rummaging through a box of long-forgotten keepsakes. It is the story of a family of orphans that begins in Toronto in the late 1800s and moves through 150 years, recounting the lives of the siblings, the strays they took in, and the people who married into the family.
Mary Swan lives in Guelph and is the Scotiabank Giller-nominated author of The Boys in the Trees, as well as the winner of the 2001 O. Henry Award for her short story “The Deep.” In all her work there is a poetic sensibility for the detail of ordinary life, and this novel is no exception, showing the richness of the inner world of the most ordinary-seeming people.
We begin in 1879 with a young woman, Clare, one of the strays taken in by the family. Her origins are vague and mostly joked about, the first of many mysteries that unfold over the course of the book. She is recovering from a bout of rheumatic fever and thinking about time, “how it can be Eternal, and yet gone forever,” caught as she is in the timelessness of fever in her attic room while the family of brothers and sisters carries on in the house below. The diagram of a watch in a book, “its pieces exploded out,” captures her attention, the pieces all in order so that it seems they could “at any moment…fall back into place with a tiny sound and become whole again.” The image could be a motif for the book, in which the stories of the family are “exploded out” to be examined and apprehended as integral parts of a whole.
Different people take on the telling of different parts of the story: Kez, whose twin sister, Nan, ran off for a brief, ill-considered marriage; Bella, daughter of Ross, the oldest of the siblings who left the family early and died in a cabin fire; Robbie, a young man who married Bella's daughter, Edie, and has just returned badly wounded from the war; and on to a great-great-granddaughter, Clare, a widow who in 1990 is packing up her home and preparing to move. There is a satisfying symmetry about coming round to another Clare a century later in the modern world who is still musing about time, remembering the girl she was in the 1960s when she traveled around Europe with a backpack and a makeshift family of other wandering souls.
Swan’s novel is foremost a book of memory, of “ghosts” that infiltrate lives, and each life is a ghost for the ones who come after. Throughout, there are common disasters such as fires, war, illness, and suicide—the “dark threads” that weave though the lives and reverberate through generations. And then there are all the small remembered moments that seem “too trivial to mention, dappled light through a breeze-blown curtain or a sentence a teacher once said, a brown horse dipping its head,” that are maybe not trivial at all: “maybe those moments are clues, a string of essentials.”
My Ghosts is a book to immerse yourself in, to put under your pillow and absorb through your pores, to alert you to “the ghosts that trail everyone,” to the way our lives are not just our own but part of a long chain of stories, part of a whole.
- Melinda Burns
Melinda Burns is a writer and teacher of writing living with her ghosts in Guelph.
Mary Swan will be launching My Ghosts at the Bookshelf eBar on Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m.