Sara O’Leary is a prolific writer of short fiction and children’s books, as well as a former columnist for The Vancouver Sun and CBC radio, and she holds a degree in screen writing from the University of British Columbia.
It is that last credential that seems to heavily inform The Ghost in the House, O’Leary’s debut novel. Its short, pointed scenes would lend themselves well to a visual treatment. Even so, there is poetry in the language — entrancing and, indeed, haunting — that beckons us along.
As we know from the book jacket, it is the main character, Fay, who is the ghost of the title. We step into the story exactly where she does, and see through Fay’s eyes as she attempts to make sense of her altered reality.
We untangle that reality along with her, as she begins to grasp that her beloved husband, Alec, has remarried after Fay’s death, but remained in their home of fourteen years—the house Fay has loved and longed for since her childhood, the house she loves so much that Alec gives her a dollhouse replica of it for her birthday.
Into this house he brings his new wife Janet and her disaffected thirteen-year-old daughter Dee. It is Dee who first discovers Fay, even before Fay is able to find Alec anywhere inside their home. Dee believes that she has summoned Fay, in an effort to haunt her mother out of the house and back to her father.
O’Leary does a lovely job of deciding what will and won’t be possible in the house-bound ghost universe that she has created. Fay can’t touch anyone without causing an electrical shock, and she emits a chill that makes those near her shiver. Her movements seem very corporeal; she doesn’t float or pass through walls — though she does fade in and out — but she learns what’s possible and adapts as she goes.
“I try to turn the knob and it slips through my hand. Or, to be more accurate, my hand slips through it. Objects have lost their solidity. I concentrate hard, think of the shape of the crystal-faceted doorknob and how it used to feel under my palm. I imagine turning it and find suddenly that I can.”
In an interesting twist, Alec cannot see Fay until after she stages a destructive late-night tantrum in the kitchen. What makes this ghost angry is the knowledge that another woman has replaced her in her husband’s heart and in his bed — that after everything, she was replaceable.
Of course, we instinctively dislike Janet, who gratingly calls Alec “Al”. Our animosity is egged on by Fay’s description. “Her features are slightly too regular. Her hair is a pale blonde with streaks of paler blonde. It looks expensive.”
The clear signal that we should not like her, though, is the bland home decorating that has erased Fay from the landscape: her beautiful blue damask wallpaper replaced by paint “that can only be described as griege,” and “a pair of slipcovered wing chairs the colour of the smudge you leave behind when you erase something written in pencil.”
Fay has ample time now to reflect on how much time she wasted, never able to discover the right fit for her artistic impulses, and never, after an early miscarriage, deciding that she truly did want a family. “How did I go through my life and make all these decisions without realizing they were decisions? Why did nothing ever feel final?” She had always thought there was plenty of time. Now she wants it all back — her house, her husband, her life. She wants to be happy again.
Except that she wasn’t happy, at least as far as Alec is concerned. “You always wanted something you didn’t have or imagined you didn’t have. You complained all the time, Fay. All the time.” Perhaps she is airbrushing the memories of both her life and herself now that she can’t do anything about either one.
Still, her death devastated him, but his life continued until he achieved some semblance of equanimity. It was his decorating makeover that removed the traces of Fay, so that the house would stop torturing him. Now he has Janet and Dee, and it’s obvious that he loves them both. Fay’s presence in the house, which for Alec is both a delight and a torment, is torturing them all.
The Ghost in the House is a novel of longing, of yearning, for all the things we can’t have — most critically for the time that is behind us, for the opportunities that have passed out of reach, for the fissures that can no longer be fixed. Sometimes, finding acceptance is the best — the only — thing that we can do.