Books: A parrot at the Tempest

THE MIGRATION OF GHOSTS by Pauline Melville Bloomsbury pounds 15.99

STEAMING between the jungles of Guyana and the heady, sweaty atmosphere of the Notting Hill Carnival via Andalucia, Soho, Nigeria and Paris, The Migration of Ghosts sizzles with vibrant life. Pauline Melville takes a corrupt president, fiery homespun flamenco, the Rebel War Band, Mabaruma warriors, life-size shrimps and lizards, steeplejacks, drinking dens, a fountain pen which cannot write the truth, a disgruntled parrot, serial murder, spectral feasts and a wild eerie wind, spinning them into a spellbinding second collection of stories which more than lives up to the promise of her first, Shape-shifter.

Restrained, yet with a tumult of ideas pulsing just beneath the surface, the collection begins with "The President's Exile" which first appeared in New Writing 6 (Vintage) last year. Awaking in the sterile anonymity of a London hotel, with no recollection of how he arrived there, exiled President Baldwin Hercules embarks on a nightmarish odyssey as he seeks to jump start his memory by revisiting scenes of past humiliations.

Premonitions of death and mythological echoes are picked up again in "Lucifer's Shank" as a woman battling against cancer finds consolation with Dante's Divine Comedy for her travel guide, and in "The Duende" where Dona Rosita, on the fiftieth anniversary of her husband's death decides that it is time for a change. Enough of black weeds, she resolves to buy coloured cloth for her next dress. But having broken thus far with tradition, she enters the taberna in town which she visited before her marriage , and contemplating her life realises that all her dreams of the future are now past, and with wild passion stamps out a death-defying dance.

This all sounds rather grim but Melville's skill is that it's not. Her combination of reflective fatalism and optimism leavens these sad stories and she interleaves them with zesty, bizarre, life-enhancing tales such as "Mrs Da Silva's Carnival" and "The Parrot and Descartes". Mrs Da Silva - hefty matriarch of the Rebel Warrior Band - has two aims in life: to better her "rival in life" Mrs Bannerman and to play maas at the Notting Hill Carnival. Betrayed by the love of a no-good pastor, Mrs Da Silva relies on carnival to restore her spirits in a frenzy of joyous ass-wiggling, hip-gyrating exuberance. And I defy anyone not to be cheered by the life and times of an angel-scorning, sceptical parrot who was present at the genesis of the Orinoco and to his horror, at the first performance of The Tempest. (Ever retentive, he was instantaneously word-perfect including Shakespeare's oaths as the players bungled their lines.) Hounded across continents and centuries by Tempest-declaiming strolling players, then thrown into the Descartes' company, the parrot "picked up the rudiments of analytical geometry. He secretly took emetics to rid himself of the affliction" and on long, boring evenings pondered the origins of rationalism.

This joy and wonder in life commingles with the undercurrent flowing through all Melville's stories here, of death, of ghosts moving through the temporal and spiritual world: universal stories retold by a consummate story-teller. Read it - this book is hot, hot, hot.

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