Written by on February 15, 2012

Two Hauntings: A Summer of Drowning, and Wayward Saints

On the surface, a supernatural psychological mystery set above the Arctic Circle, and a rock and roll comedy that bounces between San Francisco and upstate New York don’t seem to have much in common. But as different as these two novels are, there is some common ground: the specter of fathers, one absent, the other abusive and now senile, hovers over both stories. The tone, though, couldn’t be more different.

John Burnside, a Scottish poet and novelist, has written a seriously spooky psychological novel with a claustrophobic setting: a small island off the coast of Sweden, in a house occupied by Angelika, a driven, reclusive artist and her teenage daughter. Angelika was together with Liv’s father very briefly, and won’t tell her daughter much of anything about him. Liv, on the other hand, is so suppressed by her mother’s neglect, that she takes the lack of information at face value, and seems to have little curiosity about him.

Very few people are allowed into their world, and Liv only has limited access to her mother, who leaves her completely on her own to work on paintings. Their only contacts with the outside world are a handful of lonesome bachelors, most of whom seem to have long-buried crushes on Angelika. One of the men, Kyrre Opdahl, spins scary folktales for Liv about the huldra, female temptresses who lure lovesick men and boys to their death. Liv only halfway believes the stories — until a pair of brothers, and later an adult visitor to the island disappear without a trace.

Most of the tension in the book is between Angelika and Liv, and Liv and her sanity. We’re unable to tell at many points whether we’re inside her head, or whether the events being described are actually happening. Burnside does such an effective job of portraying her fear and self-doubt, that we’re often taken along with her. When Liv is summoned to London by a stranger to meet her father, who is gravely ill, her shaky sanity nearly leaves her permanently. The book was involving enough that relief was one of the feelings I had when I finished it. Still, if you enjoy a good haunting, I’d recommend it.

Suzzy Roche’s Wayward Saints, on the other hand, has a lot of comic elements: Mary Saint, a has-been punk rocker, now working in a SF cafe called the Crumb Bunny, her transsexual best friend Thaddeus, and a dead ex-bandmate named Garbagio. But Mary has ghosts of her own: an abusive father, now institutionalized with dementia, her past fame, and the shriveled, reduced life she’s now sleepwalking through. When a fan from the past offers to set up a concert for her at her old high school, her past has a head-on collision with her present.

Author Roche is a member of the folk trio The Roches, so she knows what she’s writing about when she portrays the lower-rent end of the music business. While I think I’d still rather hear Suzzy sing, I did enjoy this book for its quirky characters and satisfying story.

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