Ghosts [aka Silver Birches] by Adrian Plass

I enjoy Adrian Plass’s writing so much that I’ve started re-reading his books, interspersed with those of some of my other favourite authors, starting with the ones I haven’t read for longest. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this particular one; not that it’s a bad book, but I recalled it being quite emotive and not being all that taken with it when I first read it.

‘Ghosts’ was re-published in 2009 with the title of ‘Silver Birches’, which is a bit confusing - albeit appropriate, having re-read it - and now seems to be in print again as ‘Ghosts’. Maybe some Christian publishers objected to the original title, but I think it’s a good one, reflecting as it does the main character’s own confusion about whether listening to potentially scary stories about unknown happenings in an ancient manor house could be considered as dabbling in the paranormal.

David is the main character. He works - or has worked - as a Christian speaker, and is quite well-known in his field. A few months before the story starts, he loses his young wife, unexpectedly, after a nasty infection. He is still reeling from the shock, suffering nightmares, angry with God, and has cancelled all engagements. Then, out of the blue, a letter arrives from Angela, one of his late wife’s closest friends. She’s someone David knew quite well when they were in a youth group together.

Angela says she has something important for David, and she also suggests getting together with some of their old youth group friends for a weekend to catch up and talk. David is very reluctant to go, but decides he will… and the rest of the novel is about the relationships and dialogues with about half a dozen very different people who, it seems to David, have not changed all that much since their teenage years.

Angela is a great hostess, and still very attractive. Jenny is sweet and gentle, with lots of insight. Peter still spouts standard evangelical answers to most problems. Mike is brash and attention-seeking, not sure what he believes. Graham is quiet and insecure. And then there’s Andrew, who hopes the weekend will be useful…

The first time I read the book, I found it difficult to tell these characters apart, even though they’re all quite different. But this time I took it more slowly, savouring the words - the writing is excellent - and flipping back to the group introductions if, for a moment, I forgot who was whom. I’m pretty sure I skimmed some sections before, particularly a couple of poems that are read in the middle; this time I made sure to read everything: descriptions, poetry, emotional outbursts, nightmares; and to re-read if I thought I’d missed something.

And what a beautiful book it is. There’s no plot: I think, when I read it before, I was looking for some kind of resolution to David’s problems, for something to happen to tie up the loose ends. It doesn’t happen; but that’s okay.

Maybe it’s unlikely that a group of people who knew each other in the past would gather together like this, and share their deepest fears (and a great deal more) but that doesn’t matter either. I thought the problems felt real, and I was very moved, several times, by David’s own story - the realism of his grief, the inability to think beyond the moment.

Adrian Plass is best known for his satirical humour, and that’s certainly in evidence in a few places; I even laughed aloud once or twice. It made a perfect contrast to the incredibly moving passages with which the book begins and ends, and some unexpectedly poignant sections within.

There’s no plot to speak of, and most of the characters are a little two-dimensional. However, I absolutely loved it. Highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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