Book Review by David Hart
Have you read this book?
What will happen to you when you die? According to this book you continue as a ghost, bound to your corpse and its immediate surroundings, gradually losing your memories and personality until you end up just a blob of consciousness, presumably for eternity. Oh, and rare living people can see and hear you. That’s the main fantasy premise of the story. In fact it’s the only fantasy bit, except for a talking raven who every so often flies in to the cemetery (no, delivering breakfast, not seeking it). The rest of the book is a mixture of romantic fiction (a pair of will-they, won’t-they stories) and character studies.
So how good is the book? It’s well written, though in a style that to modern tastes may feel slightly stilted and ponderous (it was published in 1960). The plot is trivial. I have neither the expertise nor desire to comment on the romantic fiction aspect. The character studies are rather a mixture. Of the two live protagonists the woman is done well, but the man’s motivation and character are barely touched upon. More time is spent on the pair of ghosts, but with rather patchy results. However they are supposed to be forgetting and losing their personalities, so that is perhaps intentional. The motivation of the raven, potentially the most interesting of the characters, is entirely ignored.
But what about the fantasy element? After all, the book is labelled as fantasy. Well IMO it shouldn’t have been. The setting may be fantasy (if you allow ghost stories into the category) but Beagle makes no attempt to use the fantasy elements. There is no explanation as to why ghosts are like this, why a few people (and only a few) can see them, why the raven can talk and reason, why each ghost is restricted to its locality. And the locality it is restricted to is illogical: it can travel only as far as the walls and gates of the cemetery it happens to be buried in; even if buried close to one wall it can’t travel past it, even though it can range much further in another direction.
Why? What about (say) amputees? Do they timeshare? What happens to the cremated? What of those who die on a battlefield and their bodies are consumed by scavengers? Might this result in werewolves, or intelligent ravens? See, even I can make something of the material, and it annoys me that Beagle didn’t even try.
I stopped enjoying the book half-way through, when it became clear that not much was going to happen. For me, it represents a missed opportunity. However I accept that some people will get more out of it that I did; those fantasy readers who find epic fantasy too exciting; those who also read romance. I have reflected this in the rating. Really, this is exactly the sort of book to fit the famous review: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like”.