Book review: Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss

Jessica's Ghost by Andrew Norriss
Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss

So, let’s start a review of Andrew Norriss’s new book by talking about Alan Garner. Yes, that Alan Garner – Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Moon of Gomrath, Elidor – one of the finest children’s writers – no, one of the finest writers – of the last fifty years. But I bring Alan up because there are clear parallels – and just as clear divergences – between him and Andrew, and they serve to throw light upon both writers.

Style first suggested affinity: both write the tautest prose around, with not a single spare word. (Although I don’t know this, I suspect that both write in similar ways, boiling the word stew down until only the strongest broth remains.) Indeed, in Alan Garner’s case, the paring away cuts so deep that even the bones are weakened (Red Shift for example) and the story suffers. However, where it works, it works wonderfully, inviting and inducing the reader to fill in the gaps and the silences, as in a Guo Xi painting.

Autumn in the River Valley by Guo Xi
Autumn in the River Valley by Guo Xi

But style is nothing without substance, and both Alan and Andrew deal with wonder: the eruption or eliding into the everyday of things and people extraordinary and unusual – although Andrew puts in jokes, and Alan definitely does not do humour. But more fundamental is the importance in their written worlds of the fantastic: it drives everything, whether it be Aquila, an intelligent, alien space car, or the Weirdstone itself: different worlds intersect and in their crossing lies story.

But this is where things get interesting, for in the different moods of each writer we can detect something of their hopes and fears of the supernatural. With Garner, the supernatural, while more encompassing and more powerful (the Wild Hunt in The Moon of Gomrath), yet there is a sense, a desperate sense, that it may all be in the mind, nothing more than mental phantoms; if a child should ask the key question, ‘Is it true, is it real?’ the book answers that it desperately wants it to be real, but fears, with a dread full, reality draining fear, that it is not. It is, just, words, and even these are slowly draining of meaning. This is what gives Garner’s books their fragile, desperate beauty, like a spun metal sculpture, trembling and under tension.

With Andrew Norriss, on the other hand, behind the jokes and the carefully constructed comedy there is a lightness, a surety that can only come from the written conviction that, yes, this is real, this is true: the world is not only more wonderful than we imagine, it is more wonderful than we can imagine. So, while there is not the tension that fills Garner’s novels, there is a peace that issues in the joy (and laughter) that pervades them.

Jessica’s Ghost is something of a departure for Andrew Norriss – its protagonists are older, its themes more serious, its issues more immediately applicable to the troubled life so many young people live. It will be read at many different levels; it may pull some back from the abyss, while others it may allow to grow into themselves. Andrew Norriss is not so tense as Alan Garner, but he is more complete. Jessica’s Ghost is a fine, fine story; please, do read it. (Try to ignore the front cover, which seems calculated to put people off buying the book.)


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