Monday, 6 February 2023

The Ghost Drum - Susan Price's Carnegie Winner by Paul May

It's almost 20 years since my wife, Ellie, died of breast cancer, but before she died she contributed to a book edited by Tania Yelland called All Woman: A Life after Breast Cancer. Tania Yelland* also died several years ago, so there's a kind of grim irony about the book's title, but it's not in any way a grim book. Rather, it's a collection of pieces of writing by thirty quite different women about how they coped with their illness and its aftermath.

One of the things the contributors were asked to do, in addition to having their photo taken by Arthur Edwards who at that time specialised in taking photos of royalty for The Sun newspaper, was to choose a helpful quote for the start of the piece. Ellie almost chose this, which we'd seen at the start of Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Norse Myths.

'Fearlessness is better than faint-heart for any man who puts his nose out of doors.' (Anonymous lines from For Scirnis)

Readers of Susan Price's 1987 Carnegie winner, The Ghost Drum, will know at once why I mention this. Here's the old grandmother shaman talking to Chingis, her apprentice:

'Anyone who pokes their nose out of doors should pack courage and leave fear at home.'

It's important advice, which is repeated several times throughout the Ghost Drum series—there are four books in all. It seems that fear is the cause of most, if not all, of the bad behaviour we encounter in the books, and especially in this first one. I think it's fair to say that Susan Price is extremely interested in bad people, and there are some VERY bad people about, both in this book and in the world we all live in.

In The Ghost Drum The Czar Guidon has murdered almost his entire family in order to become Czar, but now he has married and has an heir on the way and he is afraid. Not surprising really as murder is the order of the day in this kingdom. Chances are the child will grow up and murder him. That's if his sister (why did he let her live?) the evil Margaretta doesn't kill him first. Then there are all the courtiers and the soldiers and the astrologers who are all terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing because if they do say or do the wrong thing they will certainly be executed. The body count in this book is high—probably the highest in any Carnegie winner since Ronald Welch's Knight Crusader—and you really do need to be fearless to make it through. There is just never any telling what will happen next.

And that's what it's like for the reader, too. This is a rich and surprising reading experience. Although the story is set initially in a fictional czardom it is also set in the ghost-world, a place to which only shamans can go and return as they please, and where parallel worlds can be accessed by those who know how. Shamans, who live for three hundred years, return to the branches of the ash tree when they die to lie in nests and await rebirth. The ash tree isn't quite the Yggdrasil of Norse mythology and I gather from my usual sources (the Internet) that Siberian shamans also had a version of this tree. Rather like Tolkien's, the book is inspired by a variety of mythologies of the north, but they are woven together into a very coherent whole. I became quite familiar with the confusing geography of the ghost-world, or I thought I did. It even began to seem quite homely after the fourth book. But just because you are a shaman, just because you are without fear, that doesn't mean bad things can't happen to you.

You could say that The Ghost Drum and its sequels paint a pessimistic picture of humanity, I'm inclined to think it's just realistic. Here's Chingis's grandmother explaining how 'word-magic' works:

"Suppose that a Czar or Czarina ordered their people to fight a war, a stupid war, a war that should never have been fought. Thousands of people are killed for no good reason, and their families left to mourn them. Much, much money is spent on cannons and swords, so there is no money to spend on other, better things, such as seed to grow wheat to feed the people - and thousands of people are cold and hungry because of this war. The Czar is afraid that if the people find out how wasteful the war was, they will be furious and do him harm. So the Czar uses word-magic. He says to the people, 'The war was not foolish - no! It proved that our people are the bravest and best in the world because they died for us, and killed so many of the enemy. I know you are starving, my children,' he says to them, 'but that shows how noble you are and how willing to make sacrifices for the Motherland. I, your Czar, am proud of you!' He says this and repeats it over and over again, and he makes his servants repeat it over and over to everyone they meet- and the magic works. The people forget to be angry. They grow glad their sons and brothers were kind, and proud that they themselves are cold and hungry."

No prizes for guessing whose face came into my mind when I read that.

The world view here is very much that of the Norse myths, and Loki, Baldur and Hel all put in appearances in later books. As a character in Ghost Spell, the final book in the sequence, puts it: 'You cannot escape sorrow, Kristiana. All life is sorrowful, but it is very, very sweet.'

These books all have a fantastically rich texture. I read all four in order and probably too quickly, so that now I have them a little confused in my head. There is a lot of repetition running through them, descriptions of the snow and frost and cold, for example, and very detailed descriptions of cities and palaces, but it never feels dull. There are lots of lists, too—wonderful lists with an almost overwhelming quantity of detail, that seem to grow longer from book to book. I was quite surprised, returning to The Ghost Drum, that there weren't so many in this opening instalment, but even so, this will give you a flavour:

'She set on the table jugs of milk and bowls of butter, salt and pickles. She added plates of black bread and herrings, of sausage and blood-pudding; plates of hard, salty biscuits and dishes of soft cheese; a jumble of apples and sweet, wrinkled, long-stored oranges; onions, eggs, black pickled walnuts, apple cake, sloe vodka, lemons . . .'

One reason that the lists and the repetitions work so well is because of the way the writing imitates oral storytelling and uses some of its conventions.  The story is told by 'a learned cat' which is tethered by a golden chain to an oak tree by a lake. 'This most learned of all cats walks round and round the tree continually. As it walks one way, it sings songs. As it walks the other, it tells stories.'

We hear the rhythm of the cat's pacing in the rhythms of the storytelling, and when you have a live storyteller sitting in front of you that kind of rhythm is a very powerful way of engaging the audience. And while this technique of inventing a storyteller to stand in for the author is often used effectively for retelling short tales, as in Arthur Ransome's Old Peter's Russian Tales, for example, I can't recall seeing it used to tell a story of this length before.

These are perfect books to read in winter. There is an awful lot of frost and snow and I love anything that has a real feel of the north. I used to delight in telling people, when I lived in Norfolk, that I could look out of my bedroom window past the arches of a group of ash trees, and know that there was no higher spot between me and the North Pole, this despite the fact that my house was only 30 metres above sea level. 

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My inclination is always towards the north, which is why I cycled around the North Sea a few years ago, and it was after that expedition that someone pointed me in the direction of Peter Davidson's fascinating book, The Idea of North. It's a marvellous and incredibly eclectic read which immediately came to mind when I'd read Susan Price's books.

All of the books in the Ghost Drum sequence are in print and available online. Susan Price's excellent website has lots more information about these and all her other books, including much more detailed reviews than this one. There are also photos of the covers of  Japanese editions of Ghost Spell and Ghost Dance which are really beautiful and make me, not for the first time, wonder why we find it so hard to make beautiful books in this country.

* Tania Yelland was a lovely woman. When she heard that Ellie was in hospital after major surgery she sent us a box packed with bottles of champagne and lots of other goodies. She was married to David Yelland, then editor of The Sun, and for all that newspaper's other faults they campaigned hard back then for breast cancer research.

Paul May's website



Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for writing this, Paul.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks so much Paul. Lots to think about in this post, and thank you for sharing your own story too.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes - a very richly textured piece.