Tricks and treats

<strong>The Ghost at the Table</strong>

Suzanne Berne <em>Fig Tree, 304pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 1905

Narrators are tricky types. They lure you, cajole you, flatter you – then smirkingly pull the rug out from under your feet. Suzanne Berne’s latest novel is a crafty, unsettling meditation on the nature of fiction: our sly tendency to edit and omit until we have created our perfect version of "the accepted story".

Cynthia, a writer of saccharine "historical novels for girls", is researching a book on Mark Twain. Having reluctantly accepted an invitation to her sister's Thanksgiving celebrations, Cynthia finds herself back in the grips of a family she has tried valiantly to forget. She casually drops "unsavoury facts" about her research subjects at the dinner table, and vacillates between frustration and lofty sympathy over her sister's disintegration.

As the family begins to unravel, presided over by the shrunken figure of their wheelchair-bound father, the parallels between her life and that of the Twains become ever more apparent.

The writing is sharp, needling, and it deftly misleads us until the denouement, when we are forced to doubt everything the narrator has apparently so guilelessly exposed. Cynthia asks: "What if you looked into the future and didn’t recognise yourself?" A good question, coming from a narrator we realise we can no longer trust.