Monday 5 August 2019

Two eerie tales: MR GODLEY'S PHANTOM by Mal Peet and THIN AIR by Michelle Paver, reviewed by Linda Newbery

'With both these novels, you'd better have uninterrupted time ahead before you begin.'

Linda Newbery has published widely for young readers and is now completing her second novel for adults. Her latest book is The Key to Flambards, which follows K M Peyton's classic Flambards quartet but is set in the present. 

I've admired Mal Peet's work since reading Tamar, a story of the Dutch resistance combined with a present-day mystery. Published for young adults, it won the Carnegie Medal, but is of equal interest to adults (must read it again.) Life: An Exploded Diagram, a coming-of-age novel set at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, was equally impressive. Mal Peet reminds me of Aidan Chambers in that his novels - intelligent, inventive, provocative - blur the boundary between young adult and adult fiction. At his death he had left three unpublished novels: The Murdstone Trilogy (which isn't a trilogy and wasn't intended to be); Beck, a young adult novel still in progress which was completed by Meg Rosoff; and this - a first draft with notes to himself for its revision.

It's a novella really, though generously spaced, illustrated by Ian Beck and handsomely produced in hardback (now in paperback too, with the striking cover shown below). As Daniel Hahn says in his Afterword: "It is many kinds of book rolled into one: a story about a man recovering from trauma, a historical novel, and even a police procedural." It's also a ghost story of a sort. The phantom of the title refers - partly, at least - to Mr Godley's pride and joy, his Rolls-Royce Phantom Three Sedance de Ville, with the bonnet mascot shown on the cover. It's this car that entices Martin Heath, a distinguished young war veteran suffering from what we'd now call PTSD, to take up a post as Mr Godley's chauffeur and handyman at a remote Devon mansion, Burra Hall.  

But there are other 'ghosts', too. The frail and elderly Mr Godley himself reminds Martin, horribly, of the pitiful sights he saw on entering Belsen: 'Martin had felt neither rage nor even revulsion. rather, it was like discovering that he had contracted an incurable disease; that, having inhaled the miasma of death, he could never be well again. That his heart might eat itself.' And Mr Godley in turn is haunted by his son Julian, who was killed in action less than a month before the 1918 Armistice, and of whom Martin seems to remind him.

This might sound unbearably grim, but in Mal Peet's hands it isn't - at least, not all the time. Peet has an expertly light touch that enables him to indicate horrors without ever overdoing the pathos or telling us how to react. Martin's recovery is aided by the willingness of servant girl Annie to engage in regular and vigorous sex, and there's humorous observation: Godley's laugh is "four dry, chickeny sounds" and Martin, assessing Annie's appeal on first meeting her, notes that "it was difficult to judge the attractiveness of a woman eating cabbage." There are unexpected turns, and then more, with light relief provided in the viewpoints of Detective Inspector Sheepstone and DS Panter, called in to investigate the old man's disappearance. But towards the end, reading Mr Godley's years-old journal which is presented in a plausibly crabbed and not easily legible hand, the emotional power was such that I felt I was prying into the private anguish of a real person.

The title, subtitle, and many things in the story don't yield all their meanings at once. As with all Mal Peet's work, it's a novel that will repay re-reading.

Like him, Michelle Paver first made her name by writing for young readers; she's best known for her award-winning Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. I was gripped by Dark Matter, with its high Arctic setting, so was eager to read Thin Air, which takes us to the Himalayas in the mid 1930s in the company of an expedition attempting to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga. They're following the path of a failed attempt made thirty years previously; five mountaineers of that party were killed, as documented in a published account by leader Sir Edmund Lyell.

From the moment when narrator Dr Stephen Pearce meets the only living survivor of that expedition, the omens are unsettling. Dogged by guilt over a broken engagement and constantly needled by taunts from his brother Kits, a more accomplished climber, Stephen soon realises that he's not the only one alert to forebodings; the 'coolies' on whom the party depend for the conveying of supplies to Base Camp and on upward have many superstitions of their own, partly to do with the demands of the mountain gods but also connected to the presence of an uneasy spirit. When these 'coolies' find an old rucksack, identified as the property of a climber from Lyell's expedition whose body was never discovered, Stephen is assailed by mounting feelings of dread. His scientific background only makes his hallucinations the more worrying: "... even if I'm wildly mistaken about everything, about what I saw on the Crag and now here at the crevasse - even if  it's all simply the result of oxygen deficiency - how does that help? The idea that altitude is giving me waking nightmares, that thin air is altering my very perceptions and deceiving my own mind into betraying me ... I find that horrifying. It's a kind of possession." And the dog Cedric who's adopted the party acts as a barometer, frequently disappearing when the atmosphere darkens.

As bickering breaks out among the group and individuals suffer from frostbite and worse, we're all too aware of the dangers that must be confronted before the summit is reached. But the real horror in the story comes from the cleverly contrived realisation of the fate suffered by the owner of the rucksack - and how the truth about the Lyell expedition has been concealed.  

Michelle Paver excels at taking us with her characters into extreme conditions. I simply couldn't put this book down; it's a ghost story for which I'll willingly suspend disbelief, full of tension and thoroughly convincing on the details of terrain, the lure and terrors of the mountains, bodily frailty and survival. With both these novels, you'd better have uninterrupted time ahead before you begin.

Mr Godley's Phantom - an infection of evil is published by David Fickling Books
Thin Air - a Ghost Story is published by Orion

(Pictured: Mal Peet, and the new paperback cover for Mr Godley's Phantom, published 1st August; Michelle Paver and her latest novel, Wakenhyrst.)

1 comment:

Ann Turnbull said...

Uninterrupted time... what a lovely idea - is there such a thing? Seriously, though, yes I shall seek out the Mal Peet story. I've read Thin Air and agree it is very gripping and scary. (And I recommend Michelle Paver's other ghost story Dark Matter, which I enjoyed even more).