Perhaps they were always there, the ghosts. That’s the way I began TRACES. More than any other it’s my novel for my dad and although he’s dead he inhabits it. Or rather, what underpins it is his spirit in me. I don’t believe in ghosts but I do recognise the enduring power of the dead over the living. It’s called love, without which there is no pain. My early novels were written in the years after my father died, which led to a lot of dead parents. But it was a while before I considered exploring the life of a dead character.
It’s fashionable to cut through flashback to another, earlier history. Siobhan Dowd did it brilliantly in Bog Child, literally fleshing out the earth beneath the feet of the twentieth century characters. It can be effective to alternate the past and present, with a secret connection between the two that may not emerge until the end. It’s a convention the reader has come to accept as long as the pay-off feels authentic, and it enables the writer to adopt two distinct styles and tones. But I’m thinking about how to bring a dead figure into a narrative in a way that illuminates the contemporary storyline, acknowledging the enduring presence of the loved and lost in all of us.
We’re all familiar with diaries, treasures and letters introduced to bring back the dead. Michael Morpurgo often uses a storyteller, typically a grandparent who is the link to the past, bringing to the story a new voice with another register, offering different settings of time and place. Thus a second narrative within the narrative can broaden and deepen the novel as an emotional experience. And it can be argued that by limiting the audience to the current and known, a writer short-changes readers who are taken nowhere new.
But children are quite used to the appearance of the dead into the lives of young characters like them, often ‘undercover’, their otherworldly status only exposed towards the end of the story, creating in the reader a frisson of which The Butterfly Lion offers a triumphant example. There’s now a danger, however, that a canny reader is so used to this device that he or she identifies the ghost from the start – most disappointing for the author who has sweated over the gradual process of enough clue-scattering, with the lightest of touches, to justify the supernatural truth when revealed.
In TRACES I wanted to provide my heroine with ghostly glimpses rather than encounters. Since Poppy knows these are ghosts she’s seeing, the psychology of her emotional reaction must be convincing, without distracting from the scenes themselves. It’s a different way of presenting the dead as characters because they’re defined by a few appearances that may be supplemented in other ways, and of course there has to be an emotional purpose. The ghosts share a purpose too and it all leads to an encounter with Sorrel, living but lost, who might have been dead but returns – to rewrite the past in this novel about its power over the present.
My dad is alive in me and in this tribute to him. It’s my my conviction that whatever the age of the reader, relationships must underpin any story, and that in fiction as in the real world, our connections with the dead can be among the most vivid and powerful of our lives.