I discovered Sonya Hartnett on a list of Printz Award-winning authors, and when I figured out that she was from Australia, I decided to read a couple of her novels for my Six Books in Six Weeks Reading Challenge. Of the three that I bought, this one sounded like the most unusual; reviews tout this novel as a combination of fantasy, fable and myth. As a former literature professor who has taught a course specifically on myths, fables, folktales and fairytales, this description intrigued me. I hadn’t intended on reading it, though, until I had tackled her more realistic-sounding novels; but suddenly this week I felt like I was in the mood for something whimsical and fantastic. It’s been a busy, tiring work week and I didn’t want to read anything as heavy as her dark psychological novel Surrender.
The Ghost’s Child perfectly suited my desire for something whimsical and easy to read. It is a somewhat simplistic – but still fantastic – story about Maddy, a young woman who falls in love with a beach-dwelling free-spirit aptly named “Feather.” Maddy is a fairly stereotypical lonely young girl, the type that never fit in or made friends, and so when she meets the young man on the beach, she is thrilled. He, too, is separate from society; Maddy believes that his love and companionship will rescue her from her isolation.
The novel seems at first to be the perfect fairytale romance, with poetic phrases and lyrical language to enhance the beautiful, slightly haunting mood. Many of the characters in this novel are simplistically drawn, much like the characters in myths, fables and fairytales. Maddy’s mother and father are caricatures – more or less or stereotypes – playing off each other in the traditional bad mother versus good father roles, saying and doing many of the typical rich parent types of things. Even Maddy, at this stage in the novel, does not do or say anything too surprising. She simply longs to be loved, like most young girls, whether they are real or fairytale characters.
But Feather is mysterious and somewhat unexplained. He lives outdoors, talks to pelicans and obsessively stares out at the horizon line on the ocean – but it is unclear what it is beyond the waves that has captivated his heart. We, as readers, aren’t able to get a real handle on who Feather is – and it’s not even clear that Maddy fully understands him either. Although Feather loves Maddy and consents to a life of tilling the cottage garden, sleeping indoors and eating off china plates, Maddy must eventually learn to accept that his heart desires something even more strongly than it desires her.
And it is with this turn of the plot that the story fully reveals itself to be something much more complicated than a traditional myth or a fable. The tone of the novel’s beautiful language begins to grow more and more gloomy, hinting that Feather is unhappy; this prefaces his departure and so readers are not surprised when he disappears from Maddy’s life.
The Ghost’s Story is more about Maddy’s response to his departure. She is no longer a passive young girl; she has already learned to stand up to her parents in order to have a relationship with Feather. She now becomes a sailor and an independent world traveler, setting off in search of Feather with the hopes that he can give her some answers.
Once she has located him and questioned him, she knows that it is time for her to move on with her life. She decides to become an eye doctor and invests the rest of her life learning, dissecting, experimenting, operating, healing. Traditional damsel in distress she is not – what fairytale princess have you previously found that became a doctor?!
Maddy’s life becomes a struggle and a quest to find happiness – or at least satisfaction – despite being denied the things that typically make people happy. She had only wanted two things: to love and be loved by her husband and her child. She could have neither. But her life isn’t exactly one of compromise, as some people might choose to believe. Maddy herself did not compromise anything; she simply learned the painful truth that human beings cannot control their own circumstances or the people that they love. Therefore, a quest for a good life is really about learning to work with what you have, even if what you have seems incomplete. The task of finding satisfaction and even happiness once you have lost such important, beautiful things is quite daunting – but this book is about a young woman who takes hold of her life and does what she wants in the face of great loss. This is not the simple story of a fable or a fairytale.
But at its core, a myth is a story that explains to human beings the way the world works and how to find a place for ourselves amidst the chaos of nature. A fable is something that teaches us how to behave, a moral about the right way to live in response to our circumstances. A fairytale is meant first and foremost to entertain, yet these tales often tackle psychological (sometimes Freudian) issues. All of these types of stories do deal with great truths of the natural world and human nature. The myths, fables and fairytales of old just don’t usually involve such a complicated response to change and loss.
Therefore I agree with other reviewers that The Ghost’s Child is a combination of myth, fable and fairytale – but it takes these story forms to another level. It is an extended tale that can help readers of all ages to understand their place in the world and the possible responses to loss and grief. It is not about compromise – it is about facing and shaping challenges; but while this novel can help us grasp the realities of change more clearly, it is not didactic in tone. There aren’t any “do this” or “do that” statements. That is why I’m fairly certain that this novel could appeal to both young adults and “grown ups.” We all, no matter how young or old, understand heartache.
This post participates in my very own Six YA Aussie Novels in Six Weeks Reading Challenge. We’ve still got four weeks left to the challenge… want to try to read Six Books from another country? Check out the challenge!