Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Revenant by Tristan Hughes

Revenant really spooked me. I was unsettled by Tristan Hughes's modern-day ghost story, haunted by its imagery and the awful, binding secret at its heart. The plot is straightforward enough. A trio of childhood compatriots - Neil, Ricky and Steph - meet as adults to honour Del, their tomboy leader, who died when they were young. A death that they witnessed. They have returned to Ynys Mon to exorcise their ghosts and to find closure, but it isn't that simple.

This dark tale is told in three interwoven narratives which alternate between adulthood and childhood. As in any good ghost story suspense is built. We know that Del, bold and vivacious, will at some point perish and that her death will probably involve water. The clues are all there. But, until the novel's end, the exact circumstances of her demise remain - rather like her character - elusive and just out of reach.

Fans of Hughes will be familiar with the strong gothic undercurrent to his writing. The way that he makes the ordinary sinister. Old people, here, are shuffling zombies; seagulls with bloodied beaks, Hitchcockian; hands and fingers - a creepy leitmotif. There are mausolea: Steph's bedroom preserved exactly as it was when she fled the family home; and the gatehouse with its stuffed dead dog, clamping a stuffed dead pheasant in its jaws.

Hughes is sly - he makes you care for these misfit children, this motley collection of outsiders. Each is marked with the indelible print of trauma. Neil's mother died young and left him a diffident stutterer unable to act; Ricky, stigmatised and belittled for being a "pikey", is an insecure wanderer; and poor Steph will suffer at the salacious hands of the Candyman.

Hughes is good, too, on the dynamics of the group: the subtly shifting alliances, small treacheries, and rivalries. The relationship between the two girls, Del and Steph, is particularly fascinating. Steph, pretty and posh, is aware that in the adult world, she will usurp her plain tomboyish friend. And maybe Del knows it too - after all, it is she who abandons Steph to the clutches of the Candyman.

The landscape is a mixture of the natural, and the magical world of folk and fairytale. Here is a forest of monkey puzzle trees, an abandoned mansion, and the Candyman's house - pitched somewhere between Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. Their realm is inhabited by a dancing bear, a dragon, and ghosts. The adult Neil sees the sprightly image of Del everywhere. And, of course, these grown-ups are ghosts to each other - never quite sure if they are of corporeal form or not.

Violence lurks just beneath the taut surface of the narrative ready to erupt. Another classic gothic trait. And erupt it does: in a fire; the destruction of a classroom; a slapped face. And then there is the death of Del herself - as heartbreaking and quietly shocking a moment as you'll find. But I won't reveal any more on that front - it would be a shame to spoil the ending of a very fine ghost story.

Revenant by Tristan Hughes is published by Picador and is my book of the year. It would make an eerie but satisfying stocking filler.