Something in the air: Broken Ghost, by Niall Griffiths, reviewed

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

Broken Ghost begins in the aftermath of a rave on the shores of a mountain lake above Aberystwyth, with three partygoers gathered in the dawn light, waiting for one last buzz off a tab of ecstasy. At that moment a strange glow appears in the morning air, in the middle of which seems to be a shadow in the shape of a woman. A hallucination? Not if all three are seeing the same thing. They barely know each other, but they walk away from that precipice changed by their shared vision.

And change is what they need: Adam is a recovering addict trying to piece his life back together; Emma is a single mother living hand to mouth; Cowley is broke and trapped in a cycle of violence by the traumas in his past. In the days after seeing the woman-in-the-glow, all three feel anunexpected calm and fortitude. They become attentive to the natural world around them, finding relief from everyday pressures in moments of fleeting transcendence. This, though, is not some pastel-toned New Age parable; it’s a Niall Griffiths novel, and therefore, with pilgrims flocking to the site of the vision and Wales gripped by a heatwave, everything falls apart in an orgy of booze, drugs, violence and magnificently tawdry sex.

This is Griffiths’s eighth novel and he is a writer well settled into his considerable talent, much of which is expressed in his astonishing ability to downshift from an unsentimental and lyrical evocation of the natural world to the seamy and sordid rendering of the basest of human inter-actions. It’s like hearing Ted Hughes declaim one of his poems, only for him to follow up by describing his favourite videos on Pornhub. No, worse, it’s like that, but in a Wetherspoon’s.

Griffiths comes out of the tradition of Bukowski and Barry and Kelman and Welsh, a writer actively hostile to bien pensants readers, a writer happy to goad you to the brink of revulsion. Sitting on a hot train, Adam sucks down ‘the sour cheap Scotch in the vegetable-soup lager’ he has bought from the unrefrigerated trolley and reflects on the alcoholic’s ability to suppress the gag reflex. It is a skill Griffiths’s readers would be well advised to learn: the use of the word ‘gristle’ in a description of what is surely the most dispiriting threesome evoked in literature will never cease to haunt. Another scene, featuring a corpse and crabs, is not going anywhere either.

This is not just épater les bourgeois. The politics of the novel run naked and raw. Broken Ghost is about what seeps out at the periphery when the centre is rotten, a novel that seethes with anger at austerity and Brexit and the way those at the edge of society are discarded and destroyed, even at the moment of their yearning for something more. At its best, it is a novel that intoxicates. But you had better be able to handle the hangover.

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