Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

"Edwin's Ghost" by H.M.Critchell (2018)

Prologue - Dec 2012, an old man is cleaning his cornet. Chapter 1 - Feb 2012, Evie (separated for 6 years from abusive husband) is giving her bullied 11 y.o. son Bill a lift to school. Chapter 2 - 1920. Lizzie, a servant, is attending to Edwin, 22, a cornet player. The action switches between these two time-lines.

In 2012 Evie and Bill move into a cottage. Bill sees ghosts in their new place, which is where Edwin's best friend John died. His mother plays along for Bill's sake, though she's scared, anxious, or resentful. She asks herself "Was it years of social conditioning that made her believe that ghosts could only be frightening?". She's an artist specialising in pets. Psychic researchers corroborate Bill's story.

Back in the 1920 thread, Edwin takes a liner to the States. On board he meets white grandparents of a grandson Jack, who's into Jazz. They inform him about US racism and offer him a place to stay. Later Edwin is in Kansas City. It's 1922. He writes letters to Sam, Susan, and Lizzie. He says "I've had a major culture shock to contend with", which sounds rather modern. He marries a black singer, and they have a child. They suffer racial abuse. He gets killed in a drive-by shooting.

2012: The ghosts say that Lizzie's girl should be tracked down. Evie finds her - and old lady living in Babraham. Within 3 paragraphs she says "stories from before our time ... It hadn't been lived in for some time ... it was boarded up at the time ... all the time we were there ... Adam had a right old time ... my grandparents' time". With the help of ghosts, letters are found, and Edwin's son (who's been in Liverpool since he was 2) is tracked down just before he dies. Evie finds someone to love - Lizzie's grandson.

The plotting's ok, and so is the dialogue. The mystery/puzzle-solving aspect works ok too. As a page-turner it succeeds, though characters are either Goodies or Baddies. Bill in particular is two-dimensional.

Structurally, there's too much repetition of plot. Too much of Lizzie's diary is quoted, telling us what we already know (though it's new to Evie). And we learn twice the details about Edwin's house being destroyed.

The main problem though is the language. Here's the start of chapter One

Bill sat in the back of the car looking glum. His bottom lip far outreached his top lip and there was a knot in Evie's gut that she couldn't ignore as she glanced at him in her rear-mirror.
'Sweetheart, tell me what's wrong,' she said quietly.
He didn't answer but turned his face away and looked out of the car window.

Instead I'd try

Evie glanced at Bill in her rear-mirror. He looked glum, his bottom lip far outreaching his top one. Evie couldn't ignore the knot in her gut.
'Sweetheart,' she said, 'tell me what's wrong.'
He turned his face away and looked out of the window.

45 words instead of 62. The start of Chapter Five needs rewriting

Since moving into Keepers Cottage, Evie realised that Bill had never been happier. She and Bill had moved into the cottage on a warm, August day and, within no time, the energy of the ancient woodland around them had injected a degree of peace into their lives that neither of them had experienced for a very long time. Since the breakup of her marriage six years ago, the unhappiness of her son at school which prompted her to home school him, and the difficulties of earning income as a single mother, it had been a constant struggle to keep a calm and rational head on her shoulders.
The peace and tranquility of this isolated cottage, on a country park in rural Cambridgeshire, was just what they both needed. And, mercifully, it was a long way from people

This repeats some info-dumping from earlier and also has internal repetition. Peace is injected, and I doubt that we need to be told that an isolated cottage is far from people.

Another section start that needs pruning is

To compensate for the upheaval she had brought into Edwina's life, Evie took her a gift of a little painting of some Cosmos daisies that she had in her small collection.
'Oh, love,' said Edwina, 'that is so good. What a beautiful painting.'
'I wanted to give you a little something for all the mayhem I've brought into your life.'

Other passages need editing too - e.g.

  • "Evie realised that she was becoming totally irrational. And now she had shouted at her poor child for being nothing short of perfect. Evie felt wretched. She wasn't sure how much more she could cope with. She knew she was being irrational"
  • "she had lost the ability to show them compassion, empathy, and affection from the time they were very young. This wasn't of her own choosing but had developed over years of bullying and scorn from her husband. His handling of their children had been dogmatic, inflexible, and tyrannical. There was no room for empathy and no understanding of the emotional needs of the family".

There are several unfortunate word choices -

  • "Both Edwin's love of music and his sound integrity were anathema to Richard Knight". Having "music" and "sound integrity" so close isn't a good idea.
  • Idioms are confused in "her son wasn't one for making up stories or telling fibs by any stretch of the imagination"
  • Evie says to her sister Fran that "Bill's been an angel." Given that the discussion's about his approach to ghosts, the choice of idiom is unfortunate.

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