Despite its beautiful dark-gray cover with haunting silhouettes and suggestive title, “Ghosting” isn’t anything like your typical formulaic ghost story. This novel is more an elegiac tale of age-worn love, loss and a maverick quest for authentic selfhood. It begins creepily enough with the central character Grace, a 64 year old woman, glimpsing the ghost of her long-deceased first husband Pete. This encounter brings with it a flood of memories accompanied by unresolved emotions which have been mostly repressed since settling down to live a quiet life on a house boat with her second husband Gordon. Rather than being fully present in her daily life she’s merely going through the motions like “an impersonator of her own life.” Although Grace is spiritually strong her psychological state is somewhat fragile due to unusually traumatic incidents she’s lived through. Grace pursues the ghost of her first husband which leads to unusual new encounters and pushes her to make dramatic decisions about her life. This novel isn’t supernatural, but expresses the way in which our yearning for the past and hoping for a different future makes us dare to believe in something other than the mediocrity of our present life.
The narrative in this novel is linked very closely to Grace’s consciousness. She emotionally excavates her past through her encounters in the present trying to make sense of what she’s felt and better understand what she really desires. It gives a tremendously intimate feel to follow Grace’s logic as poignant touchstones in the present such as the sound of birds or the feeling of raindrops draw her back into the past to recall her courtship with Pete, their children and difficult marriage, the journey to Malaysia to join Pete when he was stationed there and grappling with her tempestuous daughter Hannah. Hampered by guilt, these memories oppress her so that she feels “My life. Only I feel like it happened without me, and I want it back so I can do it differently.” By confronting the mirror ghost-image of her husband who appears in the form of a charismatic gay performance artist Grace is able to reconcile her feelings about the past and escape the confines of her mental prison. This culminates in a particularly chilling moment reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman when Grace is left alone at a party in a slightly intoxicated state and senses a woman trapped in the wallpaper.
More than most writers I can think of, Kemp is skilfully adept at capturing the intensity of feeling involved with desire and intimacy. I’m not necessarily referring to writing that is sexually frank, although he is able to vividly portray such scenes that convey this experience without tipping over into indulgence. What’s more impressive is the way he conveys the tenderness of touch and physical longing. At one point Grace ponders how she misses Pete “Not for sex, necessarily, though she did miss that – more a vague desire for arms around her and the nearness of a body.” As a woman who has been abused, there is a complexity of feeling involved in recalling moments of physical security alongside moments of physical pain. These emotions become linked to her feelings of self worth. In several poignant scenes Kemp describes how the sexual imagination spills into her present transforming how she sees the world and how physical contact yields a more assured sense of what she wants.
Jonathan Kemp’s first novel “London Triptych” was an ambitious brilliant story of three gay men’s lives at very different points in a century. With "Ghosting" it’s fascinating reading this honed down style of storytelling which precisely depicts a single character’s floundering quest for a more authentic state of being. It has a more concentrated, personal feel to it. Despite dealing with many serious social and psychological issues there is an entertaining flow to the story as Grace disrupts her normal existence with trips to a flamboyant psychic or stumbles through a wild party of modern artists. I found it to be a highly sympathetic story which made me reflect upon my own past and what I want in life – a surprising thing considering how dissimilar my life is from Grace. But there are measures of feeling here which touch upon common experiences ranging from relationships to ambition in life. The assured writing style in “Ghosting” has a way of teasing you out of your shell.