Book review: The Word Ghost

By David Hill

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Christine Paice has an exuberant interest in every character.  Photo / Rudi Vavra
Christine Paice has an exuberant interest in every character. Photo / Rudi Vavra

"It was April 1973, England. I was nearly 16 years old. My trousers were flared. I rejected politics, biscuits and bombs. I accepted Walnut Whips, David Bowie, Deep Purple."

Alas, Rebecca's parents don't always accept her wishes and behaviour. The family leave Wye-on-Thames soon after she's caught with Dave, her maths tutor, in a position that doesn't add up. They move to a slumbrous village with a green, a pub pleasingly called The Dog and Bonnet, and several darker sides.

Dave of the ginger hair and freckly face is soon supplanted by Alex of the dubious morals and brooding portraits, along with Algernon, who's tall, slender and dead.

I said "dead". He's the ghost of Keats' second cousin, and lives in Rebecca's wardrobe. He and Rebecca pal up, in spite of his balcony-sitting and equally dead sister, and his habit of leaving grit around the place. They share meditations on mortality, and poems on lots of things.

There's also sex. No, not with Algernon. Plus there's talk, talk, talk and books, books, books. Our young protagonist's family is one of the most eloquent and literate you'll ever meet. Sometimes you wish they'd all just stand quietly for a few minutes.

Paice's first adult (Young Adult, I reckon) novel is quickened by her exuberant interest in every character. We meet Amanda, the no-nonsense pub owner; Sebastian, who talks like someone pouring treacle; Flora, who can make everything familiar; other village types with their "swagger of entitlement" and personal serviette holders.

Plus there's Rebecca's vicar father, Jane Austen-loving and tree-embracing mother, clever older sister, wriggly and donkey-riding younger sister. The firefights and hugs, snappings and solidarity of family life are neatly rendered.

You'll warm to Rebecca instantly and want to smack her leg occasionally. She leaps with eagerness and confidence; she's touchingly vulnerable and gloriously self-centred.

Nobody has ever felt such feelings and thought such thoughts before, never ever - even if they're totally different 24 hours on.

She grows and changes authentically. Her adolescent absolutes start to evaporate; her perspectives widen. The world proves more challenging and capricious than she has realised.

Dialogue is springy, snarky, over-abundant. Gothic and girly are deftly interwoven.

There's a denouement with rending loss, touching - if contrived - optimism, and a couple of imminent royals. The ghostly end softly, the good end positively, the bad get slapped. Most satisfactory.

The Word Ghost by Christine Paice (Allen & Unwin $36.99).

- NZ Herald

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