Sonya Hartnett: The Ghost's Child
Sonya Hartnett (Penguin/Viking, A$24.95, h/c)
This is a shooting star of a novel, a Leonid, a fireball of dazzling light and colour which leaves naught but a vapour trail. Think of Blake and the opening four lines to the Auguries of Innocence: the lines about holding infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.
This is not a novel for children. Or, rather, not just for children. It's a novel for very brave adults. For the elderly who have reconciled themselves to death, but not to their own ebbed lives. It also calls for an unimaginably and precociously literate young reader.
Sonya Hartnett, it seems to me, is positioning herself as the new Elizabeth Jolley. A fine and noble aim to be sure... though one doomed to fail. Hartnett should be setting her sights differently. Both higher and wider. She's a brilliant stylist with a vaulting and poetic imagination. She could outdo Ovid. Seriously. She can do gods and monsters. She can also do the human gods and monsters: love and grief, ecstatic passion and abject loss, sex and death.
I've not encountered a writer who can capture the precious fragility of adolescence -- that evanescent sense that one has only one stab at this -- quite like Hartnett.
Each of The Ghost's Child's fifteen chapters has a unique formal and linguistic style. And, well, the readers who will most enjoy the parts oh-so-reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology might have a tough time with the ecstatic and saccharine playfulness of Hartnett's 'Advice from a Caterpillar' chapter.
Whitman and Wilde are not obvious bedfellows, yet imagery from Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking jostles with the dark wings of Salome in one mash-up chapter. Hang on to the mast, we're in for a stormy ride!
Those that appreciate Hartnett's tireless efforts to find exactly the right phrase -- "the whiskery sough of the forest", the "honey sunlight" and "loutish waves" -- will suffer through the kidlit bits.
Each chapter is a slipstick reading taken from various points in one woman's life: Matilda reminisces to an unnamed and enigmatic young friend about her solitary childhood, when she was "Maddy", then about her apotheosis in love: first with her Father, then with a Storm Boy named Feather. Those late teen years are the centre of her elliptical life. The years since have been a kind of shrine, a memorial to true love.
This review was published in edition 284 of The Big Issue (Australia)