Ghosting by Jonathan Kemp: book review

Jonathan Kemp’s second novel, Ghosting – the follow up to 2010’s much-lauded London Triptych – is a sharp and pacy read exploring grief, memory and transformation.

Grace Wellbeck is a frustrated 64-year-old still mourning the deaths of her daughter, Hannah, and her hypnotic but violent first husband, Pete. Dreading a second nervous breakdown and plodding along with Gordon – Pete’s solid but lifeless replacement – on their London houseboat, her future is mapped out and bleak, until she meets Luke.

A 20-something performance artist caught up in a complex love triangle with his two best friends, Luke is a dead ringer for Pete, so much so that Grace fears she might be “losing it again”. Having tracked this strange apparition to a boat nearby, she finds herself on the receiving end of a warm welcome and stumbles further into a world far removed from anything she’s ever known.

Her unlikely collision with a misfit art scene gives Grace a vantage from which to consider her own existence; the journey that follows is impossible to put down.

Filling in the gaps of her current ‘crisis’ with digressions into the past – revisiting his main character as she falls in love at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, grieves in a mosquito-ridden room in Malaysia and at various other key moments over the years – Kemp gradually pieces together a life that rings quietly true.

It’s a moving depiction of how we interact with our personal histories and the way we might respond to serious trauma, always treading a fine line between the real and delusional.

While Kemp’s style is generally neat and succinct, it’s not short of the odd flourish, too: “Back on the boat she sits down in front of her make-up mirror, wishing she could claw her skin off; dig deep into her flesh and excavate the young woman buried there,” he writes. “The evening gapes empty ahead of her, a nest of hours like open mouths waiting to be fed.”

His execution is, at times, stunning – particularly when painting a distinctly lucid image of a squat party in Hackney Wick.

It’s no surprise that Kerry Hudson, author of the excellent Thirst, has described the novel as “a rare combination of insight, compassion and brilliant craft”.

She and Kemp share concern for literature’s underexplored people and both display a real knack for gripping the reader by the scruff off the neck.

With characters expertly drawn and real to a tee, Ghosting is an emotional ride through the decades to a present where direction and certainty are rare. It’s tight and, in a sense, as streamlined as the longboats moored up on the banks of the city – and that’s no bad thing. It’s about one unseen woman’s struggle, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to relate to it in some way; it’s a definite success.

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