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What’s real, Danny? Is reality TV real? Are confessions you read on the Internet real? The words are real, someone wrote them, but beyond that the question doesn’t even make sense. Who are you talking to on your cell phone? In the end you have no fucking idea. We’re living in a supernatural world, Danny. We’re surrounded by ghosts.

I love ghost stories and the more I think about it – I think all of you do too. Look at the success of Stephen King? Does that not demonstrate that the modern world, far from deleting the need for supernatural fiction, still yearns for tales of things going bump in the night. Unfortunately there is this perception that ghost stories are historical anachronisms, fragile and quite absurd when exposed to contemporary sensibilities. Exceptions to this rule are Mark Z. Danielewski and Koji Suzuki, who both have managed to introduce fear of the unknown in between the cracks of our scientifically defined modern world.

Readers of ghost stories not only enjoy being scared – they like to acknowledge just how scared they already are.

I was exasperated by the beginning of Jennifer Egan‘s novel. Here was yet another street-wise New Yorker, lost in the middle of Europe somewhere, travelling up to a castle that he could not even find on a map. The language spoken by the locals is alien to him and he has already been told that the location is one of those fluidĀ  georgraphical points that could fall under German or Czech rule.

Danny has been invited out to this decrepid castle by his cousin Howard, whom he has not seen since they were children together. His far more successful relation has bought the property to mount an ambitious project, recreating a pre-technological space within the centre of Europe, where guests will be invited to immerse themselves in the peace and quiet that has been lost. To give themselves over to the sense of the imagination that can be atrophied by media overstimulation and virtual experiences.

As far as Danny is concerned his cousin is nuts. He can’t live without mobile phone coverage, or internet access. Those points of contact matter to him, networking online having almost as much importance as his need to attach himself to powerful people in the real world. Unfortunately for Danny his keen interest in power, and in those who possess it, has brought him to the attention of some very dangerous men in New York. This one-way ticket to Europe has given him a means to escape a very nasty situation back home.

He has another, deeper, motivation for coming though. A secret he and Howard share, over what happened between them when they were kids, an event that may well have shaped both their futures from that point onwards. Now Howard is a wealthy businessman with a wife and two children, whereas Danny has nothing to his name except the scars on his body that tell many a story about scams gone wrong. When he begins to see unusual things around the old castle grounds, hints of troubled phantoms and glimpses of an eccentric Baroness who lives in the keep and refuses to leave, he begins to suspect his cousin had ulterior motives for inviting him to the site. Perhaps even a desire for revenge for what he did to Howard years ago.

Of course none of this is real. It’s all the invention of a prisoner named Ray who is taking part in a creative writing class with other convicts and trying to gain the sympathy of the teacher, Holly, by writing about ghosts, conspiracies and dark family secrets. A neo-gothic fable about a clueless yank lost in a land where no one speaks English.

Then again, maybe all of this has happened. Maybe it is all real and Ray was witness to the tragedy from beginning to end.

This story is a delightful mish-mash of genres, psychological thriller, prison confessional and existential nightmare. The Baroness seems to have emigrated from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. When Danny tries to escape the castle it feels like a parody of Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner, complete with a village populated by eerily polite inhabitants. Ray’s prison writing class is captured brilliantly, setting up yet another protagonist to cast a different light of the events already described.

I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the inventive narrative leaps and bounds. Riveting stuff.

Walking up the driveway to the house, she spots her mother’s face disappear behind the curtain.

‘Spying on me now?’ she says slamming the door.

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room.’

‘How was your day?’

‘You mean, did I do anything weird?’

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room. I’ve got stacks of work.’

My dad used to embarrass my mam by talking about how her mother had psychic abilities. He never phrased it like that of course. He would say she had a gift. I was always curious about that as my family is devoutly Catholic. How was the paranormal accomodated?

Then again I have been to where my family is from in Co. Roscommon. It is a quite isolated part of the countryside, not much to do. Whatever would serve to alleviate the boredom of dark evenings with nothing to do I imagine.

Evie does not have the luxury of my blithe scepticism unfortunately. She is a psychic and feels it is a curse. Growing up in Sydney’s inner suburbs she would occasionally see strange things, or hear people’s thoughts, only realizing when she was older how uncomfortable she made people when she spoke of her extrasensory perception. Her own mother treats her with fear and suspicion. Evie is made to feel even more freakish when an incident at school reveals to the other students just how different she is. Bullied and mocked as a witch, Evie retreats into herself, refusing to go out at the weekends, desperately clinging to the few sympathetic friends she has.

What is worse, with Year 12 exams coming up, Evie needs to produce an art project in time for assessment. Instead she finds her drawings becoming warped and transformed, with a face of a girl she does not know emerging on the canvas. She cannot trust her own body to obey her and begins to notice unusual changes. Her left eye becomes infected, even her hair starts to feel different. It is as if a stranger’s body is replacing her own. Then there are the dreams that leave Evie haunted, her unconscious mind invaded by warnings and premonitions she cannot understand.

Estranged from her own family, her friends and feeling isolated at school, Evie despairs of ever being normal. Until she receives a phonecall from a family friend she never met, who has a secret to tell her that changes everything.

J.C. Burke captures a teenager’s feelings of alienation perfectly in the first half of this book. TheĀ  testosterone fueled punch-ups between schoolboys, post-weekend gossip about friends’ lovelives and obsessing about what clothes look good nail the adolescent experience as well. I also enjoyed the glimpses of Glebe Markets that are introduced, with Evie and her two friends Poppy and Alex play-acting around in the vintage clothes stores on a Saturday afternoon. First time I came to Australia I stayed at a friend’s house in Glebe and really came to love the area. Local details like that make this book come alive, with Evie a recognizable and true-to-life teenage protagonist.

Where I began to have problems was with the direction the supernatural plot takes the story. At first I assumed, what with the school bullying of Evie, that this was a Young Adult rehash of Stephen King‘s Carrie. When her dreams hint at a spectral force directly haunting her, even threatening to take over her body, I began to suspect a climax similar to Koji Suzuki‘s brand of disturbing body-horror.

Instead Burke presents a teenage take on the successful television series Medium. I’m sorry to say, and I am sure this seems like an irrational personal bias, but I strongly resented introduction of a police investigation into the plot. This may sound hypocritical, after all I have raved about supernatural detective novels on this blog such as those featuring Felix Castor and Joe Pitt, but the essential difference is that they were entirely fantastical books. Police have been known to use psychics in investigations (although that perception of mine could be due to false press) and to my mind the ‘professional psychic’, is no different than John Edward cold reading a gullible audience. In The Red Cardigan scepticism itself is claimed to be capable of sucking away a psychic’s powers.

However, that being said, the first half of this book makes for an excellent assessment of teenage life. I am sad to say I was left conflicted afterwards, but would recommend this chiller for an adolescent readership.

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