Ghost Music by Candida Clark

Stevie Davies loses patience with ponderous poeticism and polyphony

A young man races downhill towards the aged Jack, across an ancient landscape, but Ghost Music artfully suspends him in mid-stride. Three minutes pass and a storm is brewing. This recapitulates an earlier storm, for the boy, like a revenant, recalls a crucial earlier self of Jack's.

Candida Clark's new novel is a virtuoso set of variations on the theme of time, intricately structured. It slips between 1938 and the present, between archaeological time and the reader's time. Four major narrators pass the tale between them. They themselves are readers.

Anna has been lured to this ghostly pastoral world by a romantic American novel, whose heroine's arrival she recapitulates. Jack had been the lover of Elena, whose fictionalisation has made the area a site of passionate pilgrimage. Elena, an exotic and exilic Jewess, is "now" actually in the peaty, deliquescent heath in the form of a bog-maiden, just found by David, which is why he is running full pelt downhill.

Now where was I? Yes, David "wants to overtake himself and catch up with himself", caught as he is in "a too-slow loop of time". Oh, get on with it, I found myself thinking as I sought to advance through Clark's ingenuities.

For the characters of Ghost Music hold you up by their eternal cogitations on Time. They inhabit an inner world of lyricism, nourishing pensées rather than thoughts. All are flightily poetical and dolorously metaphysical.

The author signals her own sophisticated literary agenda by distributing her perspectivist preoccupations among the protagonists, adding a dash of Heisenberg's principle here, a Hardyan reverie there. More important than characterisation is a kind of implicit personification. Crucial roles are taken by: Time (loudly signified by a grandfather clock in the hotel) Fiction and Reality (the American novel) and Life and Death (the moor).

Candida Clark is justly known for stylistic virtuosity, for melancholy rhythms and mysterious evocativeness. Fine writing abounds in Ghost Music, which, however, deserts metaphor for simile, looping out in hundreds of tendrils that wreathe the novel's romantic heart. If an author's style contains a fingerprint, Clark's is the phrase as though, embellished by as, as if, like, and almost. I thought of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Ramsay in To The Lighthouse, measuring James's leg for a stocking: the classic instance of narrative time expanding chronological time. If only there were some socks in Ghost Music. Its bodiless atmospherics and tentacular similitudes are the product of poeticised overwriting.

What is the problem? I believe we suffer from a peculiar kind of postmodern shame. We can't bring ourselves to call an egg an egg. We shrink from mere storytelling. Polyphonic perspectivism, signalled in variant fonts, strikes us as more grown-up; grappling with Big Themes spares us realism's difficult conjuration of persons in action.

The most substantial character in Ghost Music is the bog-maiden. Clark has written a romantic, Gothic novel in which long-relished tropes - the beloved as twin, other self, uncannily pre-known, the Liebestod - are shamefacedly veiled in poeticism. Irony indeed that, in this wordscape, "wading through papery layers of illusion", only the dead can textually live.

Stevie Davies's new novel, 'Kith and Kin', will be published next year by Weidenfeld & Nicolson