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  Another Screw on the loose

A Jealous Ghost
by AN Wilson
Hutchinson £12.99, pp196

The Observer, April 10th 2005

What is one to make of AN Wilson? Religious commentator, historian, biographer, novelist, literary editor, diarist and snob, he occupies a multiplicity of roles in our literary culture, excelling in some while failing in others. His Daily Telegraph column, World of Books, is one of the pleasures of contemporary journalism: learned, subtle, often surprising.

Wilson is a man out of time, a daring highwire scholar operating without the safety net of the academy, a belletrist who, through low cunning and considerable talent, manages to thrive somehow in our hectic, post-literate times. He is usually worth reading on nearly any subject.

He lost his faith as a young man and, it seems, has been scrambling around ever since in the spaces his god left behind, asking himself, endlessly, about the how and why of things, in various modes of expression. There is a yearning for something inexplicably lost in much of what he writes and his authentic register is nostalgic, even elegiac. I especially admired God's Funeral, his recent book on the dwindling of religious belief at the end of the 19th century, which was full of unexpected insights.

As for his novels ... oh dear, who reads them? Why does he persist in writing fiction at all? The short answer is, I guess, that he has to, that ideas still come to him in a form that can be only expressed in fiction. This latest novel is at once a ghost story and a commentary on one of the greatest, most discussed yet least understood ghost stories of them all, Henry James's stupendously unsettling The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Oh, no, not more James, you may think. Following on so closely from last year's novels about James by Colm Tóibín and David Lodge, as well Alan Hollinghurst's Booker-winning homoerotic satire, The Line of Beauty, featuring a young man who is writing a PhD thesis about James, there is indeed something tedious about this modern obsession with the American master. I think what attracts high bourgeois writers of a certain age to James, in our hyper-democratic era of confession and candour, is the supreme reticence of his fiction. To read James properly is often to read his books against themselves, as it were, to seek meaning in the aporias, the absences, and the suspensions of the text, in emphatically what is not said.

The central character of A Jealous Ghost is a young American postgraduate student in London, Sallie Declan, truly a Jamesian notion if ever there was one. She is rather confused and disappointed by her London life and she is lonely. Her postdoctoral thesis on, yep, James is not progressing as well as she hoped. Very soon, and without any proper explanation, she finds herself applying for a job as a nanny to look after two children at a gloomy country house called Staverton at a remote location in Kent. Well, it will at least be a break from the systematic mediocrity of her student life and it may also give her the chance to appear in her own ghost story.

In quick time, and events move very quickly in this short novel, we learn that Sallie has a guilty secret: that once, looking after a young boy at home in America, she lost all patience with the child as well as control of herself and beat him remorselessly. Later, she did the same to a fellow student in America. Now, she is once more alone and looking after difficult children and her perception of the world is mediated entirely through fiction, through the stories she has read and admired. She is particularly obsessed with The Turn, as she calls it.

From Madame Bovary to Northanger Abbey, it is very familiar, this idea of a young woman being excited into heightened consciousness by fiction. Sallie thinks that Staverton is haunted by the dead mother of the children, the jealous ghost of the title, whom she glimpses walking in the grounds of the house. Wilson enjoys leading his hysterical young heroine into disaster even as he offers her the possibility of redemption through literature.

A Jealous Ghost is diverting enough. But unlike James's original novel or the films it has inspired, notably Alejandro Amenábar's marvellous The Others (2001), which starred Nicole Kidman in perhaps her greatest role, as a young neurotic mother who lives alone with her two small children in a large house on an isolated estate on Jersey during the war, it is not sufficiently allusive or menacing.

What Wilson captures well, however, is a sense both of repressed sexuality and of suppressed violence inside Staverton. We know that something has happened to the children in the recent past to disturb them. We know that their mother is not really dead and that her husband, whom Sallie believes she loves, has forbidden his wife from seeing the children. So what is going on? And Sallie, who is still a virgin, is a believably unstable presence, one who lives too much and unwisely in the imagination.

Philosopher William James once wrote of how meaning in his brother's less than innocent fictional prose 'was ingeniously formed by mirrors upon empty space'. In a curious sense, Wilson's prose, by contrast, is too innocent. He does not withhold enough, notably revealing Sallie's guilty secret far too early in the book. Everything is transparent. One sees too clearly in the mirrors of his prose, when what one really wants is opacity and more complexity. And what does one see? Too much empty space.


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