The Ghost at the Table, by Suzanne Berne

Give thanks for the spectres at an American feast
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It goes without saying that fictions centred on the American tradition of Thanksgiving are going to feature long-simmered disgruntlement along with the cornbread stuffing. Suzanne Berne's new novel, which spans a six-day Thanksgiving family reunion, serves up her version of the expected menu - bittersweet, dry, piquantly flavoured with secrets and lies, jealousy and guilt.

Berne - winner of the Orange Prize with her first novel, A Crime in the Neighbourhood, a family drama framed by murder - has explored wounds inflicted within the domestic circle in each of her three books. Here she focuses on sisters Cynthia (Cynnie) and Frances, whose differing truths about their parents and upbringing have led them to diametrically different lifestyles, at opposite ends of the North American land mass. One especially significant question divides them: who should take responsibility for the death of their ailing mother when Cynnie was 13?

Frances, the older of the two, has grown up to become an interior designer. In a novel guilty of some over-literalism, this is almost all the reader needs to know about her. Married, with two mismatched daughters of her own, she lives in a restored farmhouse (located, scarcely coincidentally, in Concord) whose every room is a harmonious composition of antiques, lovingly arranged and burnished to evoke an idealised past.

Cynnie's situation and occupation are altogether more - well, cynical. Her home is a make-do flat in San Francisco; her most recent lover was married; her friends are lesbians. Her work is writing a series of teenage novels, Sisters of History, "fictionalized accounts of famous women" as told by a sister. Faithfully researched though the stories are, "we make up what we can't find or make up something to conceal what we do find, if it contradicts those 'strong bonds' of sisterhood".

Cynnie, the less pretty, less well-behaved daughter, who has never forgiven her father for his adultery or his strong bond with Frances, nevertheless has a sense of loyalty. She has accepted Frances's Thanksgiving invitation this year, after many refusals, not because her now-aged father will be there (Frances is rearranging the family furniture again) but because she thinks her sister needs her.

Heavy expectations inevitably surround the holiday meal itself. Berne, who is deft and crafty, does not exactly disappoint, leading off with farce (the still-frozen turkey needs defrosting in the jacuzzi) and wrapping up with conflagration. But the novel's real climax comes later, in an act by Cynnie of exceptional transgression - part humane, part vengeful - which simultaneously points up her unreliability, both as narrator and sister. This is a claustrophobic, tragi-comic tale that moves in its arc over murderous ideas to reach, at its close, compassionate ones, and hopes for a restored future. Ultimately, Cynnie asserts her faith in Frances and in blood, and Berne her witty optimism.

Comments