All the Beloved Ghosts by Alison MacLeod
We are surrounded by ghosts as we grow older. We see them in our mind’s eye and they come alive in our present as our long-term memories grow sharper. We can easily recall the people and events of years ago and wish to share them with others—sometimes to their consternation. My son, for example, says, “Dad, that is story number 35A. Enough.”
In All the Beloved Ghosts, Alison MacLeod explores these kinds of remembrances and imaginings in 14 short stories, three of which fall under the rubric of “Imagining Chekhov.” Chekhov chronicles his own death in one story, and in others MacLeod’s characters imagine conversations at the graves of Oscar Wilde and Sylvia Plath.
The most important piece in the collection is the titular story, “All the Beloved Ghosts.” It is told from the perspective of Angelica Garnett (1918-2012), a British writer whose memoir, Deceived with Kindness, focuses on the Bloomsbury Group. Her aunt was Virginia Woolf. We meet Garnett at age 90, surrounded by the ghosts of her past as she participates in a question-and-answer session at her childhood home. Her children, parents, and aunt spring into her consciousness. MacLeod beautifully captures the dual life of the very old who exist in a real world but live in a remembered one, in which those “beloved ghosts” are very much present in their memories.
“In Praise of Radical Fish” takes a decidedly different turn. “Brothers, I tell you solemnly: it is not easy to become radicalized in a seaside resort.” Limazah, our narrator, has coaxed Omar and Hamid to travel to Brighton for holiday with the belief that if they can stay true there, they can stay true anywhere. That is, that their resolve to complete their jihad cannot be compromised. They sit on the edge of a nude beach and marvel at the effect of gravity on bodies, hoping, without success, to spot a beautiful nude woman. To escape CCTV, they enter an aquarium and are transformed into kids again as they make faces at the fish. Then, the call from the Emir’s man rings on Hamid’s phone and a decision must be made.
“The Heart of Denis Noble” is about the Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at Oxford University, who, fifty years ago, discovered and mapped the electrical mechanism that generates the rhythm of the heart. MacLeod introduces the reader to Noble as she imagines him lying on the operating room table awaiting a fresh, beating heart. Noble “returns” to parts of his youth, especially to an attic room, a single bed, and a girl. Fact and fiction are blended seamlessly as we find Noble collecting sheep’s hearts at an abattoir for his research and discussing with Ella the trial of a certain novel (something about a gamekeeper) at the Old Bailey. She sees the central issue in his life as the conflict between Eros, which binds the world, and Logos, which particularizes.
MacLeod has created a collection of richly imagined stories that delight and educate. As fine as these stories are, a bit of research completes and invigorates them, revealing more depth.
Alison MacLeod is a professor of contemporary fiction at the University of Chichester and an Eccles British Library Writer in Residence. Her novel Unexploded was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Her short stories have been nominated for the BBC Short Story Award.