Springtime by Michelle de Kretser, book review: Ghostly happenings in sunny Sydney

De Kretser undermines our expectations by refusing to play by the rules

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The Independent Culture

In Michelle de Kretser's elegant novella Springtime, a group of friends in Sydney have a discussion about ghosts and ghost stories. One of the characters, Joseph, outlines the theory that people stopped seeing ghosts when electricity was introduced: suddenly electric light illuminated the darkest corners of the gloomiest of rooms and any imaginary spectral forms were bleached out of existence.

No, that wasn't the reason ghost stories fell out of favour, argues George. "The way stories were written changed around that time," he says. "Ghost stories work up to a shock, but the modern form of the short story is different. When a loose, open kind of story came in, writing about ghosts went out."

De Kretser, author of the much praised Questions of Travel, interrogates these ideas in this dark gem of a book. She sets her ghost story in sunny Sydney, and further undermines our expectations by refusing to play by the rules set down by M R James, generally considered to be the master of the genre. The author of classic tales such as Whistle and I'll Come to You wrote of the importance of the "nicely managed crescendo" and how the "ominous thing" – the ghost – should be introduced unobtrusively at first until it comes to dominate the action.

The central character, Frances, an art historian, sees a woman in a wide hat and pink dress, with a bull terrier, while she is out walking with her dog. "There came upon Frances a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled." The presence of the ghost – or ghosts – does not dominate the story. De Kretser is more interested in exploring the way the sighting of the apparition affects Frances's consciousness.

One reads Springtime not for its shock value – this tale is much more subtle than that – but for the way De Kretser explores the nature of ambiguity and for her deliciously unsettling descriptions.