Setting Mary Swan’s novella The Deep alongside her recent novel My Ghosts, the blues in their covers are rich and varied.
The cover of one features statuary, a feminine form, opaque but graceful; the cover of the other showcases a butterfly, luminescent and fragile.
They seem to intertwine. And one could pull a pair of sentences from The Deep and allow them to speak for My Ghosts.
“Without each other we are in pieces, we are scattered to the wide winds. These past weeks we are put together like the broken teacup.”
The characters who voices speak to the reader in pieces in My Ghosts are scattered, too.
How does one reassemble an understanding of the world once one has been scattered.
Each of the narrators in My Ghosts has a different approach. One muses upon the nature of time (yes, that kind of novel) and studies diagrams which allow her to take part clocks and watches and put them back together again.
“In one of the illustrations the pieces are exploded out, each one separate with its own neat label. But you can see that they are all in order, that at any moment they could fall back into place with a tiny sound and become whole again, and then time will go ticking on.”
This seems to be a position of great power but, in fact, there is the paradox that time has been ticking all the way along, even while the device had been stopped.
This is one of those questions that cannot be answered, which leaves one feeling powerless. It is something like those word problems presented in school, designed to assist with the handling of quantifiable data.
But numbers that represent distance travelled and hours of daylight obscure other important information. Often this information is left out of the story entirely. Noting its absence can confound a serious thinker, forestall all problem-solving.
“Easy enough if she stopped wondering just where the man was going, that the days were becoming shorter. Who he had left behind, and if he ever missed them.”
But what matters most cannot be contained in the language of figures and data.
It does not matter that the first section of this story takes place between the years 1879 and 1905; the characters the reader meets in these pages matter, who is left behind and who is missed. (It is that kind of novel.)
And so a sense of powerfulness remerges.
“You can make anything into a story,” Aunt Clare used to say. “Everything is connected, or at least you can find a way to make it so.” (And, in this way, that teacup is mended.)
But mending and connecting is not uncomplicated. Relationships fracture and intensify, bloom and grow stagnant. Gaps are as significant as joins.
“But it took me longer to realize that even the spaces between words made a pattern, and could tell you something different.”
Some of the characters in My Ghosts find hope and promise in spaces created.
“She had the feeling that something had been torn and she had stepped through, like one of those old stories about a hidden, magic world.”
Other characters imagine that creating a space is an act of generosity, whereas others see only loss.
“That would be right, that would be better, and it would be a better thing, a braver thing, to leave his son with the story he would make for himself, from the things unpacked from the battered bags.”
Mary Swan’s language is spare and often poetic. Sentences hold emotion as often as they hold information.
They are sometimes fragmented: “His growing up somehow a process of folding away.” And, other times, they are sculpted, complete: “In his own life things had always brushed by him, though sometimes close enough he felt their breath.”
And the story itself is sometimes amorphous and slippery, other times deliberate and solid.
Consider this beautiful image (and, perhaps, recall the train in The Deep):
“There were flashes in the distance, the lighted windows of the late train, trailed by a mournful wail, and he remembered the coins he’d once laid on the track, remembered how they’d emerged, pressed smooth and shiny and new.”
And consider, alongside, this passage which overtly addresses the matter of movement between worlds and states of being:
“And it wouldn’t be as tidy as an equation, but she wonders if there’s some kind of rule for how long you keep seeing the dead, wonders if it’s the same for everyone. How long before you stop following a familiar back in a crowd, before a profile no longer makes you blink and stare. She thinks it must be a progression, the way they retreat from the real world but still stroll through your dreams, fitting themselves to whatever is happening there.”
My Ghosts is a beautifully told tale, scored with faint lines like those in a mended teacup, like those in a butterfly’s wings, the seams that only a storyteller can stitch.