Hungry Ghosts by Debbie Taylor

A read for the beach but with added depth and intriguing dilemmas
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The Independent Culture

Every night before bed, Sylvia - 38, married to clever, funny and understanding surgeon, Bennet - surfs the internet for the latest fertility research. She's willing to try anything to help her conceive and, after two miscarriages and several failed IVF attempts, is desperate, distraught and fed up with pretending that she's fine.

After rescuing Sylvia from a three-hour stint in the supermarket, anxiously studying every label for any unhealthy ingredient, Bennet insists she takes three months off work. He books two return tickets to Crete. On the way to the airport, Sylvia discovers that her aunt has left her £50,000, to "spend on something that will make you happy". At Bennet's suggestion, she buys a ruined cottage and some land, and doesn't use her return ticket.

Martin grew up under the eccentric care of his intelligent, loving, but often severely depressed mother, Theresa. They divided their time between a disintegrating house in Oxford, and a cave-dwelling hippie community in Crete. Now his mother is dead, Martin is back on the island, living in a camper van (with mum's ashes) and working as a builder, mostly for expat British women. He shows up at Sylvia's, argues with her plans for the cottage and, by being secretive, mysterious and alternative (not to mention young, lithe and sinuous) arouses her fascination.

Debbie Taylor's second novel is a smart, affecting, beach-type read of depth and perspicacity, which poses at least one troubling ethical question. Here are two women, Sylvia and Theresa, both good, kind people, whose personal sorrows eclipse their abilities to consider the feelings and needs of their nearest and dearest. So when Bennet and Martin behave in ways that seem morally inexcusable (I don't want to give away the plot) can they, should they, be forgiven? And are they the only ones who should be seeking forgiveness?

The descriptions of Cretan life and scenery are enough to inspire a reader to pack bags, while Taylor's depictions of depression, infertility and their ramifications are heart-breakingly spot-on. But it's not all serious, tear-jerking stuff. After all, there's Sylvia, with her own house, in a sunnily idyllic location, torn between big, clever Bennet and young, lithe Martin. So, after you've absorbed the emotional and moral depths of this story, lie back on a beach towel (or sofa), close your eyes and ponder her dilemma. If you were Sylvia, which man would you choose, and why?

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