Review: Broken Ghost is an unsettling and troubling read which crackles with energy

Background picture by Jeff Thomas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Jon Gower

Like a rage-filled bulletin from the edges of broken Britain, Niall Griffiths’ eighth novel takes us back to where his writing journey began, to the streets of Aberystwyth and its magic-mushroomed, mystical hinterland, where ‘little bombs of bilberries nod in the grasses’ and ‘yarrow galaxies slowly help to heal the acidulated standing pools.’

Niall Griffiths’ first novel ‘Grits’ portrayed the drug-deadened lives of people working under the radar of conventional society, but retained, or insisted upon their essential, human dignity. The new work has the same confident ear for the demotic, for dialogue which convinces.

But the trio of characters at the heart of ‘Broken Ghost’ is often stripped bare of pride and propriety, reduced often to animal instincts of fighting and fornication as they lurch crazily through lives both bitter and difficult and bitterly difficult.

Anger is always present and always palpable, vividly  expressed by a druidy man ‘giving it laldy’ at one point:

“This is one of those moments in history when the people of Britain have ket themselves become enamoured of their own viciousness, d’you hear me, to hate the poor, not poverty itself, and to disdain the vulnerable! To be swift to condemn!  Such is the temper of our scapegoating age.”

Sexual

It all starts with a visitation, the appearance of a woman in the sky at the end of a long night’s partying.  The three witnesses who consequently set off on their separate journeys are unwittingly connected by what they’ve seen.

Emma,  a single mother believes the woman communicated to her and by writing the exact trio of words   – “dig,” “bridge” and “wild” – on her blog this kickstarts enormous interest when those words go viral.  An accident, when an old man falls off the Trefechan bridge adds to the idea that these words are somehow prophetic.

Emma sets off on a journey of the flesh, leaving her son Tomos with her parents and following her libido into an endless series of sexual couplings. Her values are clearly not those of the world around her, but as she cautions, what “you are told is meaningful means absolutely nothing, it’s simply a way for the powerful to hold on to power and this is the most shameful thign there is.  It is one of the worst ways a human being can be.”

Meanwhile, Cowley drifts further into a world of violence, challenging pikeys in bare-knuckle fighting.  But even this fight-club world gets much, much darker when he’s invited to battle someone to the very death.

The third witness to the apparition, Adam, has his own demons, buried not too far into the past, when he was a drug addict.  He drifts, slowly cut loose from all the moorings.  He is on the verge of losing his flat and his cat.

There is very little hope or redemption along their singular or collective journeys.  One haven from the madness, a place of polytunnels, healing and understanding is the rehab centre at Rhos, where Adam got clean.

It’s a place of stray cats and “Flowers here, young flowers which will be planted outside soon, and vegetables; tomatoes like Christmas baubles.” But this place of sanctuary is shut down abruptly when the money runs out, that disdain for the vulnerable rearing its head perhaps.

Violence

One of the consistent pleasures of Griffiths’ writing are the passages which describe and often celebrate nature and ‘Broken Ghost’ is shot through with them, such as “the lovely sound that the waves make, a soft sigh and collapse.  A lull.”

Around the rancid reservoirs of a peat bog “the sundews reach for their midge, their deadly little pearls of such ugly honey.  Dragonflies, joined tail to tail, create lovehearts on the canary grass.” Meanwhile “polecats skulk for moist caves beneath the boardwalk, there to curl and gasp. Old energies heave in the peat.”

But even nature in this energetic, angry book is sullied, and the otters sighted in the recovering rivers are set against a background of loss, such as the vanishing of the corncrake.

Like a lava flow bottle-stopped by a plug in the volcano’s mouth, the septic violence builds and remorselessly builds in the novel, so that by the time Cowley encounters a pederast priest who has stolen his childhood from him the red mist fully descends and he beats him to within an inch of his life.

But there is worse to come, as the authorities prepare to send in the boot boys in their Kevlar jackets and riot gear to disperse the hordes of people who have gathered on the shores of Llyn Syfydrin, there to await another visitation.

As they do so they rave and bathe and fully enjoy each other’s company.  But this Nirvana is only temporary, as all paths lead up to a breathless, merciless and brutal ending, which in turn makes the whole book seem like a bleak vaticination, a dark prophecy of where our times are taking us.

It’s an unsettling and troubling read, but crackling with the by-now trademark Griffith’s energy that suggests he has found a way to hook himself up to the National Grid.

In a TV interview some years ago he showed the viewer the room where he worked as being the place ‘where the magic happens.’

That magic still occurs, although it’s now a bleaker and blacker magic, as the writer roils against the unfairnesses of the world, and seems to reel back from it, staggering exhaustedly from the keyboard like a man possessed, who has just produced hundreds of pages of curse and rant, giving voice on behalf of those whom society has pretty much silenced or ignored.

Broken Ghost by Niall Griffiths is published by Penguin, costs £16.99 and can be bought here.

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