Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Ghost's Child

An old woman named Matilda comes home from walking her dog one afternoon to find a strange boy waiting for her. He's just sitting there on the floral settee in her lounge room, and she is surprised to see him, never having met him before. Still, she's lived a long life and has learned to take such things in stride. She offers him tea and biscuits, and before she knows it, he's asked her certain questions, and she's telling him the story of her life.

Her story is a fascinating one, indeed. Matilda - then called simply Maddy, tells of growing up a shy, tentative child, nothing like her socially enterprising mother or her important, intimidating father:
When she walked with him through town, which she did not often do, Maddy saw the people were pleased to receive Papa's attention - pleased, and also alarmed, like children being noticed by a nun.
She does all the proper things expected of a young woman of her social standing, and when she finishes school, her father takes her on an amazing trip around the world - a two-year sea voyage ostensibly to search for the world's most beautiful thing. When she returns from that life-altering trip, she finds herself unmoved by the young men her mother wishes her to spend time with. They seem pale and dull in comparison to the marvels she saw while traveling. Until one day on the beach she sees a most unusual young man. When she meets him and they first speak, he says exactly the right thing, the perfect thing that speaks to her heart.

Maddy's story is occasionally interrupted, and we return to the old woman and the young boy. She finds herself telling him things she hasn't spoken of, let alone dwelt on, for years, and sometimes she forgets her audience altogether:
Matilda opened her eyes abruptly, and blinked several times at the boy. "Forgive me for telling you this," she said. "It's probably quite boring to you."

The boy, sprawled like a retriever on the settee, replied with a slight grimace, acknowledging that, though hardly enthralled, he would endure.
The reader can tell there are rough seas ahead for Maddy, but I felt comforted by her solid, elderly wise presence in the present day as the story unfolded. I knew that whatever happened in the story, Maddy would endure. After all, a woman who can look back on her life and say the following to a young boy who asks her about growing old is certainly a survivor, someone who must have lived a life worth living:
"Young people think oldness is the bottom of a mountain," Matilda said finally. "In truth, it is the top. I am old, because I have lived a whole life. I have climbed a long, long way. When I look back the way I have come, I can see the town I was raised in, and my mother and father. I see houses I lived in, friends that I made, people and pets that I loved. I see the wrong turns I took, places where I tripped, places where I skipped and sang and ran. I can see for years and years. To have such a view, you have to be standing on top of a mountain. The top is a difficult place to be - it's windy and it's perilous, and lonely sometimes - but it is the top, and there's nowhere else to go."
Matilda's story continues, a dreamlike and powerful story of love, and loss, adventure and hope. Hartnett's writing is so lovely I could quote passage after passage of her prose. I quickly grew to care deeply about Maddy, both the young and adventurous, occasionally foolish Maddy as well as the elderly Matilda, who seems so wise and strong. She is a feisty and admirable heroine:
Nothing was easy, and sometimes she failed, and sometimes she thought that the fairy stories were right, that there must indeed be easier ways of living happily ever after; but defeat is a poor ending to any tale, so she kept trying.
I admit to being rather puzzled as to this book's intended audience of young adults. I think that many teens would adore this book, but that it holds great appeal to adult readers as well. In fact, I think this is one of those rare books that might be read again and again, with the reader gleaning different things with each successive reading, as experience and time grant further insights and new perspectives. I loved this book. It is beautifully written and tells a poignant, fantastical, haunting tale.

The Ghost's Child by Sonya Hartnett (Candlewick Press, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews: "Maddy is quite the storyteller. Her narrative increases in power with each chapter."
Fantasy Book Critic: "For those unfamiliar with Sonya Harnett's writing style, imagine a poem, one that is written so smoothly that it puts you in a dream-like state. Only instead of being a page long this poem is a 176-page novel."
Look at That Book: " I totally devoured all 179 pages in one sitting, it was so magical and enthralling! (It also made me want to cry a little.)"
My Favourite Books: "I cried at the end of the book, not for the loss of the characters but because it was just so beautifully told. Absolutely magical, unique and with a strange and compelling beauty echoed throughout the work."


  1. Wow. This one does sound really good. I'll keep this one in mind.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  2. Those excerpts you put there make me want to read this! Even from your review it seems more likely to appeal to adult readers. I'll look this one up!


  3. I love the passages you highlighted. sounds like a good read for me.

  4. This looks really good! Off to see if the library has it. :)

  5. Anna - it is really good. It's the kind of book that I know I'll smile just to see it sitting on the shelf at my library, waiting to delight the next reader.

    Sharry and Serena - I'm glad the excerpts spoke for themselves. This was such a hard one to review because it's one of those books in which the plot is the least of the book, really, but how do you convey the amazing use of language and the dreaminess of the book? I hope you'll enjoy it if you read it.

    Kailana - I hope your library does have it. I think you'll love it.


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