Morag Joss’ Puccini’s Ghosts has two of the most suspenseful literary tropes – the slow reveal and the unreliable narrator. And when it’s the unreliable narrator who’s divulging the slow reveal the effect is intriguing.
In Puccini’s Ghosts the aging soprano Lila Du Cann returns to her childhood home to bury her somewhat estranged father. Her grip on the current day is faltering, but it is the flashbacks to the summer of 1960, her fifteenth year, when she was either Eliza, Lizzie or Lila Duncan, which is as clear as day. Or is it? It’s always difficult to trust a character who seems to be slowing losing their mind – spending days in pyjamas while obsessing over clothes to wear to a funeral, burning a piano on the front lawn, all the while having flashbacks to a family with a strong history of delusions.
Joss’ grip on the plot as she navigates us through is impressive. There is a strong focus on revealing the right amount of information at the right time – in the present the focus is on how lucid Lila is and her relationship with the towns people, but in the past is such a scrambled lot of plot and sub-plot that Joss could be forgiven for making a mess of it – but she doesn’t. There is the relationship between the mother and father, and the satellite relationships with their daughter and the father’s mistress. The glamorous Uncle who comes to save the mother’s sanity, but more likely to hide himself in the country, as he stages Puccinni’s Turandot with the towns people in a local barn. His friend, the Italian tenor, a gossip point for the small Scottish town. At the heart of this all is Lila’s 15-year old self making sense of the world and falling in love for the first time.
The flash between the present and past is very well done. The present is written in first person, with no punctuation for speech, while the past is written in third person, eye of God, although the focus is mainly Lila’s after a few chapters focusing on the father and uncle. Once we get an understanding of these characters Joss remains with Lila. We know when her father works late that he is likely to be with his mistress, and Lila’s childish view of her father’s reasons for being late highlight her sense of naivety – there’s no sense in skipping to her father at all. The sense of punctuation creates an easy junction for the reader between the present and the past. For example, in the present conversations are placed in the body of the narrative;
He’s furious, Steve. He’s at the door and Christine’s behind him.
She says, Now, Steve, it’s not the end of the world. It was my fault anyway, we were just walking past and Paris ran in, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.
Steve does not spare me the detail. As if it’s not enough you wandering the neighbourhood all the hours. This afternoon, he says, Christine was bringing Paris back from playgroup-
Pow Little People’s Paradise, you mean? I ask smiling. I know, Paris’s playgroup.
Steve glares. Aye…
This third person chapter is juxtaposed with the flashbacks, that have a sharpness to them as the reader is able to rely on traditional formatting to feel more ‘at home’ in the past. The past is easier, there is no so much work, so much analysis required because we can rely on our traditional styles of punctuation.
The truth is that the past is no more or less crazy than the current. Lila is an amusing character in her faults and there are some beautiful moments of comedy where the reader gets to giggle at her, while the joke seems to fly over her head.
The success of Joss’ slow reveal also lies in her choice of where to break the plot between past and present. As we move from one to the other we are always left with the sense of wanting to get back to the previous one, there are always plot embers left burning and as readers we want to uncover Lila’s dramas in the past and the present.
It’s this mix of characterisation, plot structure and sub-plots and punctuation that makes the slow revel so successful in this novel.