In 1942 a young girl is raped and murdered by a Japanese soldier in Hong Kong. Torn too soon from life, her spirit haunts a military hospital which, forty years later becomes a posh private school. There the ghost finds a lonely little girl called Alice — and slips inside her. Now they are one, and the little ghost has found a home.
This is just the beginning of The Hungry Ghosts, a first novel from Anne Berry that’s actually more of a family saga than a ghost story, albeit one inhabited not just by the spectral Lin Shui, but by a ghostly canary, dog and baby, all of whom eventually compete for space in Alice’s soul. Alice is the youngest daughter of Ralph Safford, a senior British diplomat, and his nightmarish wife Myrtle, whose first response to Alice, the moment she is born, pretty much sums up their relationship thereafter:
I took it awkwardly, as though it might bite me at any moment … what I felt was not a trickle of love, but a wave of cold dislike.
The household is one of enormous privilege and deep unhappiness, as Ralph clings to a vanishing imperial past, the four children cling variously to food, sex and the family dog, and Mrytle clings increasingly to the whisky bottle, each lost in their own search for happiness and purpose. Narrated by its different characters in turn — all except Alice — it’s not a happy read, but sentence for sentence it’s one of the year’s best so far. Berry has a great gift for the perfectly chosen word:
Jillian slid malevolent eyes towards her sister, but her head remained motionless.
Spirals of cigarette smoke are ambushed by the breeze and stretched to translucence.
Day-trippers still freckle the beaches.
There’s also a deliciously dark streak of social comedy, particularly in the passages narrated by Myrtle, and by their lecherous neighbour Nigel, who is endlessly unsettled by Nicola, the family’s eldest daughter:
Nicola, whose eyes I now become aware have never left me, lets a hand move against her thigh, easing her already indecently short skirt up a few inches. Someone should take that girl over their knee and give her a good spanking, I decide. The erotic potential of this image rather negates its original conception.
The descriptions of Hong Kong — the bright lights of the harbour, the clammy fog that wreaths the hills — are terrific, as is the sense of a community in crisis as the Chinese handover looms. The British, so long used to being overlords, suddenly find themselves irrelevant, ignored, as if they themselves are becoming ghosts. Where the book falls down is its move to England, as Alice tries to start a new life, far from her family; the second half of the novel is looser, less precise and less engaged. There’s a terrifying portrayal of dementia, as Ralph struggles to narrate his life in Britain, but as the Safford children grow up the sparkle of the book begins to fade. Nonetheless, this is a hugely ambitious, richly imaginative novel that leaves a distinctive shiver in its wake.