Ghost Stories: Two Novels Narrated by Ghosts

by Jerry Simcock

Tokyo Ueno Station – Yu Miri
Solar Bones – Mike McCormack

I’d neither read, nor had I heard of these writers before this year, it’s been great to have found them. They came to me courtesy of lockdown searches for what independent publishers were up to. I ordered Solar Bones from Tramp Press – and discovered it had won the Dublin Literary Award in 2018 and the Goldsmiths in 2016 - how out of the loop I’d been. I think Yu Miri was mentioned in a twitter post by Ronan Hession about books in translation and I decided to delve into some Japanese writing.

Both Yu Miri and Mike McCormack use ghosts as their narrators. One is the ghost of a middle class Civil Engineer in the West of Ireland, the other the ghost of a homeless man in Tokyo, Japan. They have both suffered though they both have had occasional moments of joy. The middle class Irish ghost has had more joy than the working class Japanese one, as one might expect. We only slowly get to know that it is ghosts who are doing the recalling, retelling, remembering, reminiscing and expounding. Neither says, ‘I am a ghost’. All is first person, but feels somewhat removed. Of course, the Irish ghost tends to think and talk in a middle class Irish kind of way and often with a quite beautiful turn of phrase, he is quite poetic. The Japanese ghost tells his story in a more, matter of fact, direct way. Both manage to get us present with them, to involve us in their tragedies, to suck us in to their stories. We are pulled along, wanting to know how they met their ends. The end of the Japanese man is slightly more obscured, though I take it he did not stand behind the yellow line on the station platform. The Irishman describes his ending in great detail – the agony and pain of a heart attack or stroke while pulled over in his car listening to the one o’clock news – dying in a lay-by. And of course, as we know, these are just corporal ends, the spirit, consciousness or ghost continues.

So why write novels and stories from a ghosts point of view? I suppose, in a sense, we are all the ghosts of what has passed, we all retain ‘memories’ of what we were once doing, once part of. It is an interesting device. It removes the writer from the scene a bit, we are, somehow, more present with the mind of a ghost and less aware of the writer, the true narrator. If we are aware of the writer it is more probably apparent in Solar Bones, simply because the book is quite ‘writerly’- beautiful descriptive prose, little punctuation, language set out in a poetic format, it is a work of great mood and style. Yu Miri’s ghost is more direct and straight forwardly descriptive. Of course, this work is translated, which brings us to all sorts of other considerations and the translation is written in the received style – speech marks, paragraphs etc. An advantage of the ghost telling the story is that everything has happened and is up for consideration, at the same time the ghost is present in the now, telling the story.

One story involves love, marriage, children, problems with children, sex, problems with work, art, an emergency involving contamination of water supplies in a local city, sickness, a very sick wife who needs nursing, problems around engineering, graft and bad planning and practice. It is horribly fascinating in the way it points to our current demise. The other involves, poverty, homelessness, being moved on, being a migrant worker, leaving home to find work in the city, sending money home, loss of contact with family, providing all for the future of a son who dies early, Buddhism, Emperors, the battles of the past and the history of the park by the station.

These ghost’s stories pull us into considerations of the human condition, to life’s tragedies and joys and to the ephemeral nature of them. They are compassionate stories. They illustrate beautifully how much our human lives and have in common. They demonstrate how reading works from other cultures, that describe different social conditions and circumstances, can help our understanding and compassion. This is important stuff – life is short, tight-packed with individual concerns, events beyond our control and emotional charge and…death comes, sooner or later, whether by surprise or design. My question is… are ghosts condemned to continually review their pasts or are they more liberated than that? Everyone is in some sense a ghost – do we continually revisit our past and become utterly burdened with them or do we free ourselves from these chains?

One book is writing about a male middle-class ghost by a man, the other is about a male, working class or homeless ghost by a woman. Both of these books are well worth reading…and, possibly, as companion pieces. ●

Jerry Simcock is a retired teacher of children in a Child Psychiatric Hospital and of others who’d fallen through the education net. He lives in East Lothian where he helps run a garden, writes and meditates. His novel, Giselle and Mr Memphis, will be published in 2022 by Vagabond Voices. /// t: @WildseedZen