Book review / Something nasty in the den

IF HE LIVED by Jon Stephen Fink Cape pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
Lillian Foy is a psychiatric nurse in late middle age who cares too much for her patients. Sensitive, you see. She and her husband Freddy are doing their best to deal with their various disappointments. Their marriage started out based on a compromise. Freddy married her to give her unborn illegitimate baby a name, and she loves him for this. But even people who mean well don't always get it right.

If He Lived is subtitled "A Modern Ghost Story", which is what it is: a full-scale, unquiet-spirit-reaches-across-the-Great-Divide-in-search- of-peace narrative. But there's nothing lurid about it. Not one dripping corpse. Not one mist-wreathed graveyard. Instead there is an elegiac, heartbreaking account of a family gone wrong, and a terrible killing from three generations ago which eventually helps to heal the present. And it is beautifully done. It reads as though there had never been any ghost stories and Mr Fink has thought of the idea for the very first time.

It's all about children - or the loss of children. There is a local legend of a little girl, murdered in the early 1800s, who is said to come looking for a soul every year, and who is turned away in a kind of Passover festival; there is Hildy, Lillian's daughter (and Freddy's too, in everything except biology) who is punishing her parents by having left and refusing all contact; there is an Italian boy of 12 or so who went missing in 1919. There is also now a spectral 12-year-old boy who has begun appearing to Lillian, often in torment, obviously desperate for some peace.

Freddy and Lillian are trying to communicate, but they have fundamental differences in outlook. Freddy thinks Lillian should let Hildy go. Lillian can't. Lillian is sure that she is seeing a ghost. Freddy can't accept it. When relations between them degenerate he does what any man would do. He starts converting the basement into a den. You can spend a lot of time converting a basement. But in the course of his work Freddy discovers something that persuades him that whatever Lillian has been seeing is real.

It would have been possible to write about Lillian and Freddy without making it a ghost story. But as the psychic investigator Dr Marit Sonnenfeld concludes (at the beginning of the book), "... this ghost had broken into the world through cracks in the Foy marriage." You more or less expect a ghost story to deliver the supernatural goods and If He Lived does, but perhaps more surprising, and what lifts it far above genre fiction, is the convincing depiction of relationships whose failure has nothing to do with good guys and bad guys, but with bad timing, with good intentions slightly off-target, with guilt rather than malice. It has more in common with Dale Peck's The Law Of Enclosure than with Stephen King.