Penelope Lively, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973)
When I read Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, I was underwhelmed. Unfortunately, I can’t remember quite why. I think it was because I could not connect emotionally with the main character, and found the novel ultimately empty and dull in spite of the literary skill of the author. This happens to me a lot with acclaimed novels of the last century or so.
However, given that Lively is an anointed Great Writer, I wanted to give her another chance. So I decided to try a very different book, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. And this time, I could see Lively’s greatness, not so self-consciously occupied with War and Betrayal and other Deep Adult Subjects, but put at the service that most fundamental, most formative of literary forms: the tale for children.
Thomas Kempe is the ghost of a seventeenth-century apothecary whose resting place has been disturbed by renovations when a new family moves into his home. His violent manifestations and messages become a serious problem for ten-year-old James, who inevitably gets blamed for everything by the annoyingly modern-minded people around him. With the help of a local builder who takes a more sensible view of the issue, and a diary from the boy previously visited by this supernatural nuisance, he must find a way to put Kempe to rest once more.
It’s a simple narrative trajectory, but it’s the way Lively treats it with such lovingly crafted detail that makes this a special book. James perfectly captures the essence of Preadolescent Boy, and has the perfect sidekick in Tim, a Disreputable Dog (the only character in the book, Lively explains in a preface, directly taken from life). The intrusion of a spirit from the distant past, causing havoc and upsetting the usual order of things, allows her to explore the mind of a child on the threshold of adulthood, and the way our past selves both pass away and remain forever in some eternal bubble of time.
Funny, finely observed, and written with an unfailing sense of the music of language, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe demonstrates the power of story as embodied idea. Rather than making some dry, intellectual statement about the nature of time and memory, Lively has crafted her thoughts into living pictures that leave the reader free to draw deeper meaning from them … or simply enjoy an entertaining tale. To me, this is the best kind of fiction, lacking the preachiness and snobbery unfortunately often found in so-called “adult” literature (including, I’m afraid, Lively’s own).
The one weak point in the story, I felt, was Thomas Kempe himself, who didn’t fully come to life for me — and not just because he was a ghost. An abrupt turnabout in his character at the climax of the story lacked sufficient motive, and added to the sense of his being a mere narrative device rather than an actual person. A bit more attention to this aspect would have made an excellent novel even better; I couldn’t help thinking that Diana Wynne Jones would have made a better job of it.
In the preface to the Folio Society edition, Lively appears a bit baffled by the success of her early book, and admits that “writing for children left me long ago.” This seems sad to me, and makes me wonder if some spark of vitality had vanished by the time she got around to Moon Tiger. I’m interested to read more of her fiction, and see if I can again be inspired by the creative energy that impressed me here.
Have you read any of Lively’s other novels? What can you recommend?