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After her parents are killed in a car accident, twelve-year-old Liberty Fuller is left in the care of her young pregnant stepmother, Marie. Bewildered and grief stricken, Marie and Liberty travel to a remote Scottish holiday home searching for a place to heal, but once isolated from the outside world, they find themselves surrendering to the dark tensions underlying their relationship. Unable to escape their building resentment and claustrophobia and the eerie atmosphere of the house itself, Liberty and Marie are soon heading towards a tragedy of startling betrayal and further loss … Twenty-five years later, Liberty’s own pregnancy forces her on a journey into the past as she attempts to confront the secrets of the loch house, and the ghosts still waiting there.
Megan Taylor is a writing friend of mine, and I’ve always been an admirer of her work, which carves its own particular route through the rich and darkly poetic lives of young adults or children on the brink of discovery and change. I’ve previously reviewed one of her earlier novels on Vulpes Libris so I was delighted to give page time to this one also.
It’s a classic Taylor addition and on the whole I loved it. Liberty Fuller’s voice is strong and vibrant right from the start, and she treads a tenuous path balancing between imminent young adulthood and the childhood she can’t quite leave behind yet:
The last thing I needed then was Marie’s thin, mindless chatter, her stumbling voice, so different from my mother’s. I leant against the car window. Outside, there was only blue sky and yellow-lit grass. The blue was endless and very still, but beneath it, the grass moved in deep, slow swathes and ripples. It made me think of cat fur, of Mr Whiskers, left behind.
The themes of change, the lost realities of the past and the dangerous mysteries of the unfamiliar present are key within the text, as both Liberty and Marie try to come to terms with the sudden death of Liberty’s parents. The nightmarish sense of being snatched up and deposited somewhere unfathomable are echoed both in the strangeness of their Scottish hideaway and the flow of the chapters as they alternate between Liberty as a child, and her understanding now as an adult.
In fact the different timelines are beautifully structured and create a rich tension and complexity as the narrative evolves throughout. Unusually, I didn’t prefer one and downplay the other, as I often end up doing with a dual timeline novel, but instead I was gripped and moved by both, so well done to Megan for that enviable skill. I also thought it was immensely realistic to show the grown-up Liberty trying to distance herself from the child she’d once been and the choices she’d made then – she is both the same Liberty and one who is very different as a result of the experiences she’s gone through in the intervening years. Alongside that is the fact Liberty is as an adult journeying back to her childhood hideaway in order to try to come to terms with what happened there, as if the two Libertys are somehow moving inexorably towards each other as well as always, because of the way life is, being apart. Within that contrast, the mystery and tension inherent in the plot is allowed full rein:
Surely it will be all right this time? With this journey I’m going to make it right.
After all, what happened at the loch house wasn’t my fault. None of it’s my fault. I’m not to blame …
There is no way I’m still that child.
Holding all these tensions together is the poetic richness of Taylor’s prose, which is itself a delicious contrast to the pain felt by the protagonist:
I heard the short, high cry of some water bird and felt a sudden darkness flutter over me, like a hood tugged briefly across my face. The sensation lasted seconds, but even after it had cleared, a shadow went on flitting along the loch house’s gold-lit wall, quick and loose and mischievous. I turned away, to face the loch again and the setting sun. To the tremors of a rising breeze, and to the light caught in flames across the water.
Utterly beautiful. Of course, the focus is not just on Liberty – there are other people and factors at work in and around her in both timelines. As I’ve already noted, Marie features heavily in Liberty’s childhood story, but there is also the influence of the people in the village, Kyle the young boy who becomes a friend of sorts, and the possibility of the ghosts. Then later in the adult sections, we have her difficult relationship with her lover Richard, himself married with a family, and the pregnancy. So the complexities and growing sense of unease and potential tragedy are allowed to live and breathe a little outside the main character’s viewpoint, which cleverly stops the plot from slipping into melodrama.
Speaking of tragedy, there is a terrible event which occurs towards the end of the childhood sections, which is itself a characteristic of Taylor’s plotting, and which is also the reason for the adult Liberty making the decision to journey back. Once more these scenes are powerfully described so it is impossible to look away. However I did feel that the lead-up to the tragedy, although skilfully written, suffered from the slightly over-long scenario with Kyle. This section could have happily been cut with no great loss to the overall flow of the piece.
That said, the ending is incredibly good, and left me at the same time devastated, satisfied and desperately wanting more. So, this is a book to treasure and ponder over – not one however for a bright sunny day but one for a dark and gloomy evening, and all the richer for it.
The Lives of Ghosts, Weathervane Press 2012. ISBN: 978 0 9562193 67
Also available as an ebook