Sunday, 9 March 2014

Book of the Month: The Ghost at the Table (Suzanne Berne)

The narrator of The Ghost at the Table, Suzanne Berne’s third novel, is Cynthia Fiske. Cynthia is a writer herself, a novelist of sort. She works for a small company that publishes a series of books for girls called ‘Sisters of History’. The books are fictionalised accounts of famous women ‘as told’ by one of their sisters. The books are meant to be cheerful, feminist stories, emphasizing the bond between the sister who was unusual from the start and destined to achieved glory and the other, remarkable—but not so remarkable—, sister. Cynthia covers literary women and has written moderately successful ‘fiction’ on Louisa may Alcott, Emily Dickinson, and Helen Keller, each from a sister’s perspective. She is contracted to write about Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister. In her later years Harriet Stowe lived next to the family Samuel Clemens, better known to the literary world as Mark Twain. Mark Twain had three daughters, none of whom became famous and two died in their twenties. Cynthia grew up in Hartford, the town where Twain lived with his family, and a family heirloom, an old Estey player organ, according to the family legend, belonged to Mark Twain himself. Cynthia’s father has told his daughters that Twain gifted the organ to his mother when she was a child. This is partly the reason why Cynthia wants to write about Mark Twain’s daughters instead of Harriet Beecher Stowe. But is that the only reason?

Cynthia has always felt a modest connection with Twain’s daughters and not just because they had grown up only a mile from the house she grew up in. Cynthia’s family too has three daughters and Cynthia, the youngest, believes that she was the least favourite of her father, just as Jean, Twain’s youngest daughter, was his least favourite. Cynthia’s mother had taken ill—with an illness which was initially thought to be psychosomatic but later turned out to be early onset Parkinson’s Disease—soon after her birth, and her abiding memory of her mother is as a valetudinarian, forever confined to her bed, the bedroom smelling of a concoction of stale medicinal smells, her remissions becoming more and more infrequent, before she finally succumbed when Cynthia was thirteen. Even here, Cynthia feels, is a similarity with Twain’s family: Twain’s wife too was a chronic invalid and died when the daughters were young. Cynthia is invited for Thanksgiving by her middle and only surviving sister, Frances—the eldest, Helen, having died of cancer a few years before—, to her house in Concord, New England, not very far from where they grew up. But there is a catch. Frances also intends to invite their father, who—eighty-two, paralysed with stroke, and in the process of getting divorced from his much younger second wife—has been shifted to a nearby Nursing Home, for the Thanksgiving dinner. Cynthia, a woman more sour than a lemon tree in full bloom—having worked her way through a number of unsatisfactory and unfulfilling relationships, the most recent of which involved an affair with a married man, she finds herself unattached and on the wrong side of forty—, has issues with her father. She does not like him. She considers him to be ‘selfish, cruel, and just this side of venal’. She blames him for having an affair when their increasingly infirm mother was alive and allowing the woman—who has disposed him off now that he has had a stroke—to move into their house within days of his wife’s death. She blames him for putting in a perfunctionary appearance at the memorial service of their eldest sister. Above all she blames him for their mother’s death. Over the years Cynthia and Frances—with whom Cynthia had an uneasy relationship in childhood—have gone over these issues again and again, and Cynthia has always believed that Frances shares her views of their father. Cynthia is therefore surprised when Frances—now married happily, for all outward appearances, to a doctor and having two teenage daughters of her own—invites her to the Thanksgiving dinner to which she is also planning to bring their father—to whom Cynthia hasn’t spoken in years—from his nursing home. Frances would very much like a family reunion because, she says, their father, who is in very frail health, is not long for this world, and Frances does not want any regrets. Cynthia is not convinced but allows herself to be persuaded to visit her sister, telling herself that she would visit Mark Twain’s house in Hartford the day after Thanksgiving. When Cynthia arrives in Concord she has a few unpleasant surprises awaiting her. Firstly, her brother-in-law, Walter, who comes to pick her up tells her that he and Frances are going through difficult times; he also puts forth a very convincing case which leads Cynthia to believe that her sister is on the verge of accumulating all the symptoms that would have the psychiatrists get their prescription pads out and write a hefty dose of Prozac. Finally—and this really throws Cynthia—Walter informs her that her father is still in his martial home in Cape because of some mix-up of dates with the nursing home and that Frances is planning to drive to Cape and bring him back, except that she has lost the confidence to drive, which means Cynthia will have to drive to Cape. When Cynthia arrives at Frances’s home she finds her sister a bit preoccupied but not in the midst of a heavy-duty mental breakdown which is what she has been led to believe. The two sisters drive down to Cape the next day where Cynthia endures a very awkward encounter first with his father’s second wife, and then with the manager of the nursing home who informs them bluntly that there is no vacancy in the nursing home and what is more she had informed Frances about this very clearly almost a month ago. The sisters have no choice but to bring their paralysed father to Frances’s home where he would stay until some old biddy in the nursing home pops his clogs and a vacancy arises. Cynthia begins to suspect that Frances has actually planned all this; that there was no mix-up of dates with the nursing home; that the reason Frances wants her father not just for a few hours on the Thanksgiving day but for several days is the surviving members of the Fiske family, forced into closed proximity over two days, would clear the air poisoned ever since their mother died all those years ago. Over the next three days, an increasingly prickly Cynthia manages to get into awkward situations with Frances’s family, including her brother-in-law, her nieces, and Frances herself. During the Thanksgiving dinner she successfully ruins the festive mood by telling stories of the unhappy lives of Mark Twain’s daughters, hinting heavily at the similarities between Twain’s family and her own family. She eavesdrops on conversations between her nieces and friends and believes that they are worried about their mother. Finally, it is time to lift the lid on some unwelcome home truths about what really happened all those years ago in the night their mother died; who did what and with what intentions; and who was responsible.

The Ghost at the Table is a well-paced novel that is part family chronicle (of a dysfunctional family) and part mystery. Berne keeps the reader’s interest going by drip-feeding titbits of the Fiske family via a series of strategically placed flashbacks. It is an astute and poignant portrayal of the lies that families tell themselves and others and go through their lives believing in them until the moment is reached when dissembling is no longer an option. The tale cambers over an array of themes, some of which uncomfortable. The climax, when it arrives, has, one gets the impression, a deliberate anticlimactic feel to it, but it is no less wise and humane for that, and believable.

Berne is very adept at evoking ambiance. The Thanksgiving dinner, for example, is described in a way that luminously calls forth the awkwardness felt by those sitting at the table, accentuated by the attempts of some at false bonhomie, the posturing and sneering of adolescents, barely suppressed hostility of some members of the party towards others, and the unspoken—and for that reason unrequited—expectations. It is altogether very compelling.

A great deal of pleasure of reading The Ghost at the Table comes from Berne’s simple yet pellucid and vividly evocative prose, made crunchy by a wry sense of humour. At the same time an understated tone of menace pervades the narrative, reminiscent of To Kill A Mocking Bird. The reader experiences a sense of unease as the plot progresses, as he tries to fathom what is lurking under the surface of superficial cheeriness. It is all done very subtly. The interspersing of the Fiske family history with the real life family history of Mark Twain is a deft touch. The parallels between the lives of the Twain girls and the Fisk women are drawn, like everything else in the novel, almost impalpably. There isn’t one false note in the almost-300 pages of the novel. Berne is like a master choreographer who has planned the performance to perfection.

Suzanne Berne won the Orange prize for literature for her brilliant debut novel The Crime in the Neighbourhood. With The Ghost at the Table, her third novel, Berne makes a return to her scintillating form after a slightly lackadaisical second novel. It is a marvellous novel which Berne as a writer in the tradition of Harper Lee.