The DWJ project: The Time of the Ghost

From my edition’s cover copy:

She doesn’t know who she is or what she is, let alone why she finds herself flitting invisibly through the half-remembered halls and grounds of a boarding school. Can it have something to do with the ancient evil that four sisters unwittingly awoke?

I remember finding this one of the harder DWJ books to read when I picked it up; I think I’d only read it once. Not because it’s impenetrable or anything (though the protagonist’s confusion as to who she is and what’s happened to her do make it harder for me to attach as a reader), but because of the subject matter.

And that was before I found out the horrible parents were based on Jones’ own upbringing.

This book is, I think, the closest thing to horror Jones ever wrote. Apart from the supernatural aspect (the “ancient evil” mentioned in the cover copy), the daily existence of the sisters is far worse than any of them seem to consciously realize. Their neglectful parents are so busy running the boarding school, they can’t be bothered to make sure their daughters get fed. The girls have to go beg dinner from the school cook, who then blames them for not being responsible enough to fend for themselves. I spend large amounts of the book wanting to scream at the top of my lungs at these people.

I appreciate the fact that the sisters are not, in the face of this treatment, perfectly supportive of and caring toward one another; it wouldn’t be realistic if they were. But I kind of want to scream at them, too, and that’s another thing that makes the book hard to read. The extent to which you like it, I suspect, correlates strongly with how able you are to like Cart, Imogen, and Fenella, despite their individual and collective weirdnesses.

And now for the spoilers.

Despite having such a faint memory of this book, I knew straight off that the Monigan doll was wrong, and that Julian Addiman was a bad guy. So it’s a testament to the story, I think, that I had such a visceral reaction to them, even though 95% of the actual plot had vanished from my brain.

(Side note: I have issues with Julian Addiman, but I think that’s mostly because my brain firmly assigns the name “Julian” to a different and much more congenial character in one of my own stories; I take offense on his behalf to see his name slandered in that fashion. <g>)

I couldn’t remember whether the ghost was Sally or not, though. It’s such an odd thing to do with the protagonist, making her not sure who she is, then making her decide, then making her doubt again, and leaving it so uncertain until so near the end of the story. Coupled with the limitations on her ability to affect anything, it makes this a much harder book for me to get into than usual; character is too much my doorway into story, and that door gets very narrow when my pov character doesn’t know who she is and only remembers things in flashes. And yet, I don’t know that you could reorganize the story to tell it any other way — too much would get thrown out of whack if she knew she was Sally.

As I’ve mentioned with a couple of the other books, I find it hard to judge how I ought to interpret Himself’s behavior. Clearly he’s not meant to be a good person or a good father, but I’m a good fifty years younger than Jones was (and was only a year old when the book was published); some of the things he says and/or does may have seemed more routine or acceptable to her than they do to me. The fact that he’s reluctant to call his own daughters “bitches” in front of Mrs. Gill seems a pretty clear sign that it’s supposed to be beyond the pale, but I’m never quite sure where she intended the bar to be when it comes to corporal punishment and such.

And, of course, I can’t help but read it now with an eye toward Jones’ own childhood, what I’ve heard of it via other people. I know there are elements of her parents in the story; I wouldn’t be surprised if there are elements of her sisters, too. And maybe even something of Jones herself in Sally, though nothing there leaps out at me. I never met her, though, and don’t know enough to really guess. But this book makes me ache for what she went through.

Nearly done . . . three more posts to go.

0 Responses to “The DWJ project: The Time of the Ghost”

  1. lanerobins

    Oddly, this is one of my favorites of hers. I say oddly because I don’t really know why. I love her lighter fare: Howl’s Moving Castle, Archer’s Goon, then there’s Time of the Ghost. Those are my three yearly rereads.

    Maybe the thing I love is how muddled the ghost is? Talk about a metaphor for your teenaged years! No one sees you, you can’t communicate clearly, you don’t even know who you are yourself…. She sees her sisters as horrible, and yet she’s (kind of) the horrible one. (Only kind of, because really her wants are so sympathetic.)

    But really, I think I just love the sheer dysfunction in this book.

    • Marie Brennan

      I can see that; it’s just not a flavor of dysfunction that I myself am very partial to. (But I love The Homeward Bounders, which is hella bleak, not to mention another protagonist with some issues of his own.)

  2. iopgod

    Im fairly sure I came to read this one fairly late, probably only after they started getting republished in the UK in the swanky new covers-with-round-windows… late ’90s, perhaps?
    I remember being terribly confused reading it the first time, and going back and re-reading imediately. I certainly enjoy re-reading it now.
    I think is DWJs auto-biography, which includes what I assume are the basis of some of the situations in the novel.

    • Marie Brennan

      Ah, thanks for that link. I knew about some of the stuff she describes there, but not all of it. (e.g. that the “flying” scene was from her life, but not the bit about knots in the hair, etc.) Sounds like she and her sisters got along rather better than the characters do.

  3. dorianegray

    This has been one of my favourite DWJs since I first read it, not long after it first came out. I would have been 12 or 13, I suppose. And being a child, I took the awfulness of the girls’ life as one more of those “these things happen in books but not in real life” things. Which is of course not true, but I still don’t have the difficulty with it that you describe, and I still love it very, very dearly.

  4. chomiji

    I’ll have to chime in with those who say that this is a favorite. My own family was, thank God, not nearly as dysfunctional as the Melfords, but I definitely had a feeling of sympathy for the girls and their situation. Also, for me the book manages to be both horrifying and horrifically funny. The scene where they’re trying to collect enough blood for the rite to allow the ghost to speak made me laugh aloud the first few times I read it.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, the scene with the blood is great. <g>

      The family is definitely a variable-mileage thing; I don’t enjoy that sort of conflict very much, even in fiction. It just makes me too uncomfortable.

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