A Presence Beyond the Page

Sometimes the body count in my reading is high.

Of late, the un-body count has been rising.

I noticed the presence in W. G. Sebald, when I began reading Austerlitz (2001; Translated from the German, 2011) earlier this year.

In the photographs which accompany his narrative, there are no figures, but the images have a haunted feel to them.

“One has the impression, she said, of something stirring in them, as if one caught small sighs of despair, gémissements de désespoir was her expression, said Austerlitz, as if the pictures had a memory of their own and remembered us, remembered the roles that we, the survivors, and those no longer among us had played in our former lives.”

In Sebald’s works, there are strange and unsettling connections between landscape and memory, photographs and experiences.

In David Mitchell’s fiction, there are connections of all kinds and, in The Bone Clocks (2014), there are not only connections with his earlier novels, but there are more connections within the volume than his readers might expect to find.

Mitchell’s narrative unfolds across six segments. Each is in a different year between1984 to 2043 and each in a different narrative voice.

But characters you expected would have disappeared? They return.

And, then, there are others.

“The problem is, she’s right. I do feel them. This place is… What’s another word for ‘haunted,’ Mr. Novelist?’”

In John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Harbor (2008; Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, 2008) there are actual missing people.

The story begins with a family excursion on a remote Swedish island, from which a six-year-old girl disappears.

It is winter and her parents can literally retrace her steps, through the snow, but, then, there is nothing.

As with his novel Let the Right On In, there is a mix of raw and recognizable human pain with the bizarre.

“But this was not Maja. The person who was Maja, who had memories and pictures and who could talk, had come to him, had somehow managed to escape into the sea. What was sitting by the bed was only her body, or that part of her that was necessary to enable him to see what he wanted to see.”

The entire community of Domarö searches for Maja, but in Jen Sookfong Lee’s The Conjoined (2016) the disappearance of two sisters in Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1988 is barely news.

Beyond their immediate family, only a few people are even aware that Casey and Jamie Cheng went missing.

One of those people is Jessica Campbell, whose mother has recently died, leaving behind the bodies of two girls in the bottoms of the family freezers.

Suspenseful and tightly paced, the atmosphere is charged and emotions raw.

“And they woke up in the morning pissed off again. It was an ever-expanding mass and they didn’t know how to stop it, or if they should. Anger, the older one reasoned, was better than sadness. They could think. They could laugh. They could push the hurt around. And so they held onto the rage, and it was sharp and dangerous.”

Angie Abdou’s In Case I Go is written in a spare and compelling style.

The story is set against a legacy of pain, as ten-year-old Eli moves with his family to Coalton, where the building of a high-end subdivision has unearthed a graveyard belonging to the Ktunaxa.

The Ktunaxa’s homeland and band members have been exploited and abused for generations and Eli’s relationship with neighbour Sam’s niece, Mary, unearths something else long-buried – a relationship between his grandfather and another Mary – which reflects these themes and poses some difficult questions.

Insightful and character-driven, the novel is carefully layered and engaging.

“‘If you want to keep coming over to my place, you and I should steer clear of my sister’s story.’ But I would like to know more about quiet Mary’s mom. Not my Mary, who can say one thing with her eyes at the same time she says another thing with her mouth. No. Now I’m dizzy again with all the Marys.”

In her graphic memoir, Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me (2017), Lorina Mapa shares memories of her childhood, growing up in the Philippines in the 1980s, inspired by returning home to attend her father’s funeral.

Along the way, like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, readers receive an education on politics and culture.

(There’s also an awesome discography in the appendix. Like, seriously awesome.)

There are many disturbing stories about the Marcos’ regime, including one with ghosts, surrounding the construction of the Manila Film Centre, which workers had to rush to complete, resulting in more than a hundred deaths from scaffolding shortly before opening night.

“Ever since then, ghosts have been sighted roaming the building. It’s said the Manila Film Centre is one of the most haunted places in the Philippines.”

And you? A presence in your stack?



  1. Naomi March 6, 2018 at 11:46 am - Reply

    Touch by Alexi Zentner would have fit in well with this post.

    I have never read anything by David Mitchell, but the way you describe the structure makes me think I’d like it a lot. My mom likes him, and I usually like what she likes.
    Harbor and The Conjoined both sound good! I didn’t know it was the sisters in the freezer – for some reason I thought it was their mother. I don’t know why…
    And footprints in the snow that just stop? whimper

    • Buried In Print March 6, 2018 at 12:27 pm - Reply

      Heheh. Yes, I’m not sure I’d suggest Harbor as a great match for you as a reader. I think you might find the coming-of-age angle and all the misfits in his Let the Right One In more appealing; he views very human conditions through elements traditionally associated with the horror genre (but written in too descriptive a style to appeal to some horror fans) so that it is strangely relatable and powerful. But if you’re already whimpering… 😀

      Touch would be perfect, because it, too, is about so many other things, but there is a distinct presence on the page that lingers after reading too.

      [Note: Here’s the link to Naomi’s post on Touch and here’s mine.]

      The other book that I remember your mom really loves is Bleak House, so the idea that she, too, is a David Mitchell fan intrigues me. Somehow I avoided the “thing” about The Bone Clocks that I’m glad I didn’t know; I enjoyed discovering things along the way and I really enjoyed it. (Also, I thought it was the mother too – I wonder if we listened to the same interview!)

      • Naomi March 8, 2018 at 5:50 pm - Reply

        Bleak House has all the different storylines going, though. Isn’t that how Mitchell’s books are? I remember when my dad tried to read Bleak House… he described it as a bunch of people sitting in living rooms talking. Sometimes the living rooms were different, and sometimes the people sitting in them were a different bunch. That was before I read it – he sure didn’t make it sound very appealing! hehe

        • Buried In Print March 8, 2018 at 6:11 pm - Reply

          Now that you mention it, I can see the connection. Most of his (other than Black Swan Green and number9dream) are like moving from one living room to another but sometimes there’s a piece of furniture that stays consistent. And I guess there is sometimes another, less visible, link…like they all use the same carpenter to refinish the woodwork, but you wouldn’t know that without peeking at their chequing account. Did your dad end up finishing the book, or did he get tired of the living room scene?

          • Naomi March 9, 2018 at 1:01 pm - Reply

            I was trying to remember if he finished it or not. I don’t think he did – all the characters and living rooms blended in together, and he couldn’t keep anything straight.
            Not that he can’t read a complex book. He likes big long sagas like Ken Follett and Greg Iles. He also likes puzzle-type books like Dan Brown. I’m always on the look-out for math-y books for him. (He’s a math guy!)

            • Buried In Print March 9, 2018 at 2:07 pm

              I’m still surprised that I finished it myself! Also, I’m glad to know that he likes “mathy” books because I have a friend whose husband doesn’t read as much as I think he should giggles so he can’t possibly keep up with all the mathy books I discover (in the process of avoiding them myself). The one in my mind is The Hidden Keys, but it’s not as mathy as I thought it was going to be – it’s really just about the number 5!

            • Naomi March 14, 2018 at 1:01 pm

              If you think of any math-y books, let me know! 🙂

  2. lauratfrey March 2, 2018 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Love this. I haven’t read anything overtly creepy lately, and now I’d like to. I had The Conjoined in my hand at the library the other day, but I didn’t take it. I listen to her all the time on Can’t Lit podcast!

    • Buried In Print March 5, 2018 at 9:25 am - Reply

      It’s strange, but they don’t actually feel creepy. Maybe Harbor, because there are definitely things left unexplained. But with the others, it’s more a question of there being a real weight to things in the past, injustices and losses.

      Like the question of indigenous sovereignty which haunts the story Angie Abdou tells; even when the settler characters want to be free of that horror (some, not all, are willing to consider the past and what it means to the present) it is still there. Maybe I’ll give Can’t Lit another try; I’ve only listened to one episode. Any recommendations?

  3. A Life in Books March 2, 2018 at 5:40 am - Reply

    Perhaps it was your reference to Austerlitz that reminded me of a very moving photographic exhibition I saw in Karakow which depicted eastern European synagogues, crumbling through the lack of anyone to keep them up. No words apart from the locations, as I remember, but none were needed.

    • Buried In Print March 5, 2018 at 9:18 am - Reply

      I hadn’t really thought about the significance of captioning photographs. Until Sebald. Now I realise that I have looked to captions to define things for me but, left on my own, I am writing my own, and maybe they are no less valid. I recently saw “Exhibit A” at the Royal Ontario Museum, which reproduces some of the evidence of the Holocaust which was presented at the trial in Europe (as proof of it having occurred) and I thought there were no explanations (but, in fact, they were just on parts of the opposite walls that I hadn’t seen yet). I imagine attending that felt similar to your feelings in the presence of those crumbling synagogues’ images.

  4. annelogan17 March 1, 2018 at 5:41 pm - Reply

    Ohhh all these books sound very creepy. I will say, the cover of that first one does have a haunting picture, especially because historical pictures of kids tend to have an ‘eerie’ feel to them.

    • Buried In Print March 1, 2018 at 6:33 pm - Reply

      I think there was a debate for some time as to whether it was actually a photo of the author when he was a boy, but I think it was determined not to be the case. So, still a little creepy then?

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