Ghost Story, by Toby Litt

Journey into profound grief lacks depth
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The Independent Culture

It is a truism that the greatest tragedy to befall any parent is the death of a child. Toby Litt's achievement in Ghost Story, his fifth novel, is to show that a similar degree of grief and desolation can be caused by the loss of a baby during pregnancy.

It is a truism that the greatest tragedy to befall any parent is the death of a child. Toby Litt's achievement in Ghost Story, his fifth novel, is to show that a similar degree of grief and desolation can be caused by the loss of a baby during pregnancy.

Litt and his girlfriend have suffered three recent miscarriages, which he describes in an extended preface. The content is affecting, but its inclusion seems to reflect the contemporary distrust of the imagination and the desire to authenticate the truths of fiction. Far from enriching the texture of the novel, the preface reduces it.

Ghost Story explores the effect on Agatha, an advertising executive, and Paddy, a philosophy lecturer, of losing their daughter, Rose, in the womb. The focus of the novel is unusually narrow. Apart from the bereaved parents, it includes only five subsidiary characters: their two year-old son, Max; Agatha's mother, who looks after him while her daughter recovers; Paddy's mortally ill father, whose death towards the end triggers the possibility of change; and two friends, Henry and May, whose newborn baby, symbolically named Hope, highlights Agatha's despair.

Litt charts the varying stages of Agatha's bereavement with sensitivity and precision. Having moved to a new house by the sea, she is unable to leave it even when she runs out of food. She suffers from incongruous, orgasmic nightmares and morbid fantasies in which she imagines herself hacking Paddy's body to bits. She grows increasingly resentful of Paddy, despite his heroic efforts to support her, and even struggles not to hate Max.

As her breakdown intensifies, Agatha hears strange noises and glimpses shadowy figures that seem to be holding both her future and her soul: an apparent haunting which is the most overt expression of the title. The house is an extremely powerful presence: more so than any of the characters.

The overriding problem of the book is its lack of any emotional charge. The neat rationalisations and overt admission that the noises might be "reflexes of the mind" remove any sense of horror from Agatha's isolation. What's more, for all the skilful delineation of Agatha's derangement and Paddy's helplessness, it is hard to care for either. Litt's determination to focus entirely on their emotional state, paradoxically, deprives them of weight.

The lack of emotional depth is linked to a linguistic poverty. Litt's prose style is woefully inadequate to his theme: a serious fault in one of Granta's "Best of Young British novelists". His sole verbal flourish appears where it is least fitting - in the preface. The cumulative effect is to make the most profound of griefs seem shallow.

The reviewer's 'Good Clean Fun' is published by Maia Press

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