Family ties, past and present

The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne. Algonquin Books, 2006.

All of us bring ghosts to our table.

Whether we dine alone in a lovely restaurant or take our supper at home with our spouse and children. Whether we pick over our holiday meal in the solitude of a nursing-home bed or feast in some great familial hall with a ravenous horde of nieces, nephews, cousins, uncles, and aunts.

We all bring to our particular tables our own particular ghosts: comrades we left long ago, lovers we spurned, deceased wives, mothers, or fathers, perhaps even the ghosts of our own selves, our younger selves long vanquished and altered by regrets, sorrows, and terrible, private revelations.

Of course, we don’t always acknowledge, or for that matter, even remember these ghosts. Like waiters in evening dress, they may stand for years at our elbows, waiting for our glance or for the snap of our fingers to bring them to life. With sad, patient faces, our ghosts hover over our shoulders, waiting for our summons to appear directly before us.

And summon them we do, of course. Sometimes we order them up as if they were an item on a menu, desirous of their presence, willing them to step from the misty past or the earthen grave to sit themselves down and converse with us. More often, however, we call them forth accidentally; for the truth is, we no more wish to meet them than we would wish to visit a mortuary or attend a funeral. Yet all it takes is a word, a visitor’s gesture, the scent of a baking pie, the sound of a certain chord of music, and our ghosts leap up like startled doves in our imaginations.

The place of these specters is one of the topics addressed in Suzanne Berne’s novel The Ghost at the Table (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, ISBN 1-56512-334-4, $23.95). Berne, the author of A Crime in the Neighborhood (which won Great Britain’s Orange Prize) and A Perfect Arrangement has given us a wonderful portrait of family life and the ghosts that haunt all families.

Cynthia Fiske, the youngest of three sisters, is writing a book aimed at adolescent girls about Mark Twain, his own tumultuous family life, and his relationship with his three daughters. In the meantime, Cynthia, or Cynnie as she is called by her older sister Frances, also finds herself forced to deal with upheavals in her own family. Her father is dying, Frances is suffering from intense emotional distress, and her teenage niece, Jane, has begun cutting and mutilating herself in a bid for her parents’ attention.

Returning to Concord, Mass., at the behest of Frances to spend Thanksgiving with the family, Cynthia finds herself, like one of Twain’s daughters, lost in the dismal swamp of family’s secrets and dilemmas. She realizes how deeply her father has influenced his daughters, despite years of estrangement from them. His own disturbed childhood and his consequent marriage to a woman who becomes an invalid, his selection of Frances as his particular favorite among his daughters, and his behavior after his wife’s mysterious death have shaped and scarred the lives of his children and his grandchild.

Someone once wrote that to construct a successful novel the protagonist must be likeable. Susanne Berne’s depiction of Cynthia refutes this bit of wisdom. Though Cynthia seems congenial when we first meet her, prodding her compliant sister, trying to comprehend her father, and acting at times as a voice of rationality in the book, some readers may find her, as I did by the novel‘s end, spoiled and irritating. She whines too much, complains too much, carries on (and on and on) about her tough life growing up. Yet no other narrator would do in this story: it is her voice which seems perfectly suited to carry this tale to us.

Berne’s novel deserves applause on several other fronts. Though her story is set chiefly in the present, she tells us much about Mark Twain and his family life, particularly in his later years. She depicts in vivid and often humorous detail the turmoil of modern family dynamics, ranging from Jane, the Gothic, teenage daughter of Frances, to Frances herself, who seems so terribly vulnerable to pain and who seeks only the good or the veneer of goodness from the Fiske family’s many difficulties. Berne is also unusually adept at presenting filial conflict, in this case the tension between Cynthia and Frances. On the first page of The Ghost at the Table, Berne writes as Cynthia:

Though of all the people in the world I probably love Frances best, after a day or so at home with her I found myself becoming lethargic and moody, leaving dishes in the sink, taking long naps in the afternoon. Meanwhile Frances’s normal good nature soon gave way to exasperation and apology. We both understood the effect we had on each other, only made worse by the holidays. Still Frances felt she needed to invite me, just as I needed to refuse. In this way, we absolved each other.

The Ghost at the Table will be published Oct. 20. If you were looking for a Christmas present, particularly for that female bibliophile in the family, you may have come to the right place in The Ghost at the Table. Here is a book to savor.

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