All the Beloved Ghosts by Alison MacLeod is a meditation on death. It’s a collection of short stories where sometimes the principal character is about to die, sometimes they’re evading death and sometimes they’re ruminating on the passing of others. There are moments of brilliance, for instance, the trilogy of short stories written in the voice of Anton Chekhov but largely, this book left me feeling underwhelmed.
For me, the highlight of the collection was Dreaming Diana: Twelve Frames. The opening sentence:
I can admit it now. In 1981, I had the Lady Di. I went to Wendy’s Hair Salon on the Bedford Highway and asked for the Lady Di… On my lap sat a picture of Diana at the London nursery where she worked… I emerged from the Salon looking like a boy. A pageboy.
This made an immediate (and slightly embarrassing) connection with me. In the early 80s, I too went into our local hair salon in Bathurst and asked for a haircut like Lady Di. Of course, no haircut, no matter how brilliant, was going to transform a chubby 7 year old into a radiant princess-to-be. I know that now.
For these and other illogical emotional reasons, Dreaming Diana: Twelve Frames worked for me; I read with grim fascination as MacLeod broke down the minutes leading to Diana’s death: ‘when the car departs, it is twenty past twelve. Two and half kilometres of life remain’/ ‘When she was prised at last from the Mercedes and stretched out in the ambulance, a tear in a vein near her heart opened wide’. And of course, the moments of global despair on hearing about her death: ‘The British Ambassador wept and wept like a child… Shehnaz Shafti, 39, a Pakistani…. poisoned himself. In Hong Kong, a young man jumped out of the thirty-third floor of a tower block’.
However, I couldn’t foster this level of affinity with the other stories because of MacLeod’s dogged insistence on being coy. In How to Make a Citizen’s Arrest, it took pages before I read the first clue on what the story was actually about and then, it just irritated me: ‘I can still see Cherie’. Turns out Tony Blair is under citizen’s arrest for his decision to go to war with Iraq.
It’s a great idea for a story, but it’s whole framing felt like an awkward set up for this punchline. The stories about Sylvia Plath and Angelia Garnett were constructed in a similar way. As a result of reading this book, I can now attest to the impossibility of getting emotionally involved in a short story of which you don’t understand the first half!
Just as one story would impress me (In Praise of Radical Fish – about teenage ‘jihadists’), the next would leave me flummoxed (Woman with Little Pug – about … who knows?). While this collection contains flashes of cleverness and instances of beautiful writing, there wasn’t enough heft to carry MacLeod’s vision for the book and rather than being insightful, it all became a little dull.
Make me feel better – anyone else had a rubbish celebrity haircut?
I received a copy of All the Beloved Ghosts from Bloomsbury Publishing in exchange for an honest review.