Adam is a recovering addict, precariously clean after time in a rural rehab facility (which is about to be axed by austerity cuts). Emma has spells of anxiety and is addicted to bouts of promiscuity, escaping into the crush of anonymous bodies; she is also a loving if flawed single mother to Tomos. Cowley is a violent, volatile building-site labourer with a sideline in bare-knuckle boxing who is barely able to read. His trauma and bitterness are empathetically portrayed and connected to the sexual abuse he suffered in childhood. Griffiths memorably conveys these main characters and others through an energetic, immersive mix of vernacular inner thought and long flights of contrasting lyricism by the author.
We sweep through the charged days of a broiling post-Brexit Welsh summer. Emma’s casual online posts about the collective vision prompt a massive and unintended internet response; the news goes viral, and a mighty gathering of people - in search of meaning or God or some sort of high - begins to assemble on the slopes where it occurred. All three main characters are slowly drawn back there. This is a subversive, compelling concept that easily carries the momentum of the novel to a menacing climax. One of the many trolls who respond online writes: “Yes, these are our witnesses; a slut and a junkie and a thug … these three are our Lucia and Jacinta and Francisco. Our innocent peasants.”
By drawing a clear parallel with the Fátima visions, in which three young Portuguese shepherds claimed to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1917, Griffiths taps into an interesting myth. If a Biblical event were to come, would it not be – as before – to the troubled and downtrodden? What makes the recipient of a vision worthy of it? By exploring such a theme – though never in an exclusively Christian way, there is more allusion to ancient Welsh mythology here – Griffiths has forged a complex piece of radical fiction, a Blake-like reverie on the possibility (or not) of spiritual regeneration in our time.
Though we never wholly grasp the fundamental sources of Emma and Adam’s existential crises, poverty and addiction are enough to account for their behaviour. Adam reminds us that “temptation isn’t so much everywhere as everything”. They are both dependent on benefits, risking eviction from their rented homes as their initial experiences of post-vision wellbeing fade and they unravel into self-destruction. Emma drinks gin and tonic in pubs, night after night on her solo sexual manoeuvres. A relapsed Adam accompanies his mate Brownie to Wolverhampton for a doomed drug deal, but before they have even scored any money they are buying alcohol from the train trolley.
Mundanity aside, what triumphs in Broken Ghost is the sheer vibrance of its lyrical flights. Griffiths’ prose can explode into myth and fantasy despite the grim normality of the setting– it is a pantheistic celebration, a Dionysian prayer to organic life and decay. As well as a wry observer of human frailty, Griffiths is a nature writer with a matchless eye for metaphor, whether he is looking at a dying sheep or a feeding dragonfly. So we find here, among all the extremes of human behaviour, the measuredness of an author who can communicate great beauty: “the hills remaking themselves within the gauzy mist … the land itself reaching towards self-awareness and flicking out from itself flecks of life that sing and that fly”. River eddies are “smudged under gnats and syrupy in their coilings”. Scents include “the vanilla of gorse, the pine’s turpentine”.
This important novel comes from a tradition: from the green eulogies of Dylan Thomas and Caradoc Evans, to the harsh urban grit of Irvine Welsh. The result, though, is something new, a passionate response to nature and to the countryside, which is rarely encountered in contemporary British fiction anymore. In its singular and unfashionable way, Broken Ghost is also a question without an clear answer – the fundamental matter of whether the vision was real, and whether that even matters, whether salvation can come from within as well as without, is ultimately the concern of this brilliant and rare novel. An equally rare 5 stars from me.
NB: In respect to the novel’s title, you might be interested to look up the term ‘Brocken Spectre’ – though I’d advise waiting until finishing the novel to avoid a possible spoiler, of sorts.
Reinvigorated by this novel, and the clear mountain air, I take leave of the UK once more and head to the island of Guernsey in the Bailiwick of Guernsey in the Channel Islands.
Along with the Isle of Man and the Bailiwick of Jersey, this forms one of three island British Crown Dependencies off the coast of the UK (though the Channel Islands are geographically closer to France). The Bailiwick of Guernsey comprises the jurisdictions of Guernsey, Sark and Alderney; each with its own parliament, legislature and currency. It is a monarchy under the ‘Duke of Normandy’ (aka Queen Elizabeth II) with an appointed nominal Lieutenant Governor, and a UK Government representative (currently the MP for North East Hertfordshire!).
Had enough? Me too – just don’t forget to (re)watch the ‘UK Explained’ video I posted earlier…
Given the ridiculous permutations, cost and time involved in getting a coach, train, then car ferry to Guernsey I opt for a three hour twenty minute train to Birmingham New Street (hello again, England), then take the one hour ten minute domestic flight from Birmingham to Guernsey Airport… it comes in at less than $200 and I make a mental note to make a contribution to carbon offsetting with the savings…
The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the German Army during World War II and the scars remain – not just in the concrete bunkers and gun emplacements that dot the landscape; but in the very psyche of the Islanders…along with the small population this has made finding a local novel that is contemporary, rather than a war-time memoir, or action-packed WWII potboiler, difficult.
I was therefore, delighted to come across the recent Paper Aeroplanes by Dawn O’Porter – with not a Nazi in sight! The publisher blurb goes thus:
“It's the mid-1990s, and fifteen-year-old Guernsey schoolgirls, Renee and Flo, are not really meant to be friends. Thoughtful, introspective and studious Flo couldn't be more different to ambitious, extroverted and sexually curious Renee. But Renee and Flo are united by loneliness and their dysfunctional families, and an intense bond is formed. Although there are obstacles to their friendship (namely Flo's jealous ex-best friend and Renee's growing infatuation with Flo's brother), fifteen is an age where anything can happen, where life stretches out before you, and when every betrayal feels like the end of the world. Paper Aeroplanes is a gritty, poignant, often laugh-out-loud funny and powerful novel. It is an unforgettable snapshot of small-town adolescence and the heart-stopping power of female friendship.”
Not being quite the target audience, I was a little wary - but reading it just made me realise how universal the wonderful, awkward and terrifying years of teenage-hood are to everyone – regardless of gender, background or decade…I really enjoyed this book and will eulogise about it in my next post 😉