A hard grind

Ghost Story

Toby Litt <em>Hamish Hamilton, 286pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0241142784

Toby Litt's thoughtful, heavy-going novel of grief centres on Paddy and Agatha, a philosophy don and an advertising executive who buy a house on the Kent coast. The place has had squatters and needs a fair amount doing to it. A cheerful chapter shows the builders going about their business and thinking their private thoughts, but when the couple move in, it is clear that something is badly wrong.

Agatha has given up work and cannot bear to leave the house. Paddy himself is close to his wits' end, and their little son, Max, is staying with Agatha's mother. We know roughly where the problem resides because of the long, autobiographical introductory section, in which Litt tells us about his girlfriend's miscarriages and mentions how he once heard of a woman who had to carry a dead baby to term.

Agatha goes slowly bonkers or semi-bonkers. She's off-putting enough to begin with, given her fierce controlling tendency, "making her mood the mood of the house". Her dreams, particularly her anxiety dreams, about abandoned Max enlist our sympathy, but her strange fantasies about killing Paddy, and her obsessive phobias, wear it out. This is deliberate - Litt is telling us that there is nothing pretty about the emotions he's describing - but it makes the book a hard grind.

In the prefatory memoir, Litt recalls trying to find the right department in a hospital, going "down this corridor and this corridor". The use of a second "this" instead of the expected "that" is a smart move, conveying the sense that hospitals sometimes give you of getting stuck in an M C Escher labyrinth. Later, however, the language starts to play with itself. Agatha thinks "Freud had vandalised her psyche . . . It was like a vast fairground ride - with this lifting that and that coming across to turn this other this way and that." Pseudery beckons: "Her seawards impulse was one of the most powerful that she could recently remember having - apart, perhaps, from her griefwards one."

And large chunks of the book are taken up with effortful abstraction:

Objects were always trying to form inside her, and some of them might even have deserved the name of thoughts or nascent actions. Shoots and trunks of definiteness were reduced to skeleton forms, and then reunited with the smeary mist.

Quotation does not give the full strength of it; I would have to quote 20 pages, and even that would be like the square in the paint catalogue that doesn't prepare you for the spectacle of a whole room done in that colour. Not all of the disquisition deals with Agatha's imaginings. She and Paddy have important conversations, with every psychological move and countermove minutely examined.

Analysing emotions and relationships is a popular hobby, and Litt is true to the workings of distressed and exhausted minds, trying to thrash everything out at a conscious level and making a mess of it. But really our lives are determined by biological and external factors that we do not control. We come up with all sorts of mental scribble to disguise this, but scribble is what it is, and only a limited artistic purpose is served by inventing reams of it on behalf of imaginary characters.

Things pick up towards the end. As Agatha's delusions reach a crisis, Litt handles the interior events well, and the reader gains a vivid idea of what is going on. Nevertheless, two golden rules of fiction state that couples and nervous breakdowns are boring. Litt has staunchly set out to disprove these rules, but opinions will differ on how far he has succeeded. On the last page, he entrusts his characters to the reader: "let them live a while longer, forget them slowly". It's a bit much to ask.

This article first appeared in the 01 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Dictator of Downing St