The Ghost at the Table, by Suzanne Berne

Dark secrets uncoil at Thanksgiving
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The Independent Culture

Whatever possessed Suzanne Berne to construct her latest novel around a Thanksgiving Dinner in New England? The annual American festival of Thanksgiving is as tired a vehicle as a second-hand Dodge with scratched bodywork. The Ghost at the Table has the usual ingredients: the turkey that won't thaw, tricky vegans, mismatched guests and a family crisis during the cheese course. But remarkably, The Ghost at the Table evolves into a satisfying and complex story that adds up to more than its parts.

Suzanne Berne won the Orange Prize in 1999 for her debut novel, A Crime in the Neighbourhood. It was a prophetic title, capturing in five words the themes she loves; dark secrets uncoiling in small-town America. The Ghost at the Table is her third novel and it continues the trend.

Cynthia earns a living writing inspirational history books for girls. Her sister Frances is an interior designer so skilled at assembling beautiful objects that she even manages to transform "our rotten old father, hunched like a bat in his wheelchair, grumpily waving away a glass of wine, into a bit of decorator's gold: a nice old man by the fire..." But their mother's death when they were children continues to cast a long, threatening shadow. Mrs Fiske died from heart failure after a debilitating illness, but in circumstances just strange enough for everyone to suspect each other. Frances and Cynthia's intimidating, vile-tempered father remarries at Olympic speed. He appears so entranced by his new wife that he drops all three daughters - even Helen, who is dying from cancer.

Cynthia accepts Frances's Thanksgiving invitation against her better judgement. She's swayed by the fact that she has been commissioned to write the story of Mark Twain's daughters and the Twain family house is nearby. She doesn't realise until it's too late that Frances is planning a Thanksgiving makeover of the Fiske family history.

Suzanne Berne has constructed her story with precision. The Fiske girls are incarnations of Mark Twain's daughters. Mark Twain "would fly into terrible rages about missing shirt buttons or the soup being cold", just as Mr Fiske would. Twain and Fiske both favour one daughter above the others. The device allows Berne to explore the idea of how a story can ever tell the truth. "It must be fabulous," Frances says, "to get to sit at home and figure all this out and choose what you want to tell from what happened."

Suzanne Berne is a skilful choreographer. For most of the novel we trust the version of history being told by Cynthia. She seems so reliable compared to Frances, for whom life is a House and Garden room-set. Cynthia speaks in reassuringly believable aphorisms:"I glimpsed the true power of mendacity: you can always be persuaded to doubt your own certainties but never your own lies." Once I'd forgiven Suzanne Berne for inflicting Thanksgiving on us, I realised just how much I was enjoying The Ghost at the Table. Berne has something important to say and she does it with elegance. Just don't believe what her characters are telling you. They may not know they're lying, but they're lying all the same.