The Ghost Keeper
by Natalie Morrill
Review by Simcha Fisher
HarperCollins Canada, 2018
$22.99 (CAD); 368 pp
Chapter 5 of Natalie Morrill’s The Ghost Keeper made me set the book down almost in holy fear. In a few brutal pages, the central plot point is laid bare. You don’t realize, until that point, that you’re waiting for this exhumation; but when Josef Tobak, an Austrian Jew, takes up this burden of a long-hidden, infernal inversion of his own love story, you’ll stay with him to the end, to work out his responsibility.
When I first took up the book, I thought it was the perfect novel for our time. Tobak comes of age bewildered and uneasy as his beloved Vienna smolders with fear, hatred, and mistrust in the dreadful months before the Anschluss. “If the country is going to explode . . . . it will explode in a fire of patriotism,” he thinks. He finds a way to keep his head down, to pursue his own concerns: his family, his vocation of caring for the dead. Who can be trusted? This is not clear. “But then in March it is as if this thing that has stayed in the shadows starts to uncoil,” he says. The Nazis grow bold, and the city does explode.
“I am just a number in that crowd,” he recalls. “I don’t have a voice today and I have no words for which to use it—unless those were Go home, everyone. That’s all I can think of wanting: peace, home, family. Everything the way it has always been.”
Very few, it turns out, can be trusted, and nothing will be the way it was.
But despite the contemporary resonances, this is not a political novel. It’s a story about what it means to survive, and what it means to go home; what it is like to love, what it is like to be betrayed. It is about guilt and responsibility, about how to live with unspeakable burdens, and about how to survive when, as one character says, “everyone is excused, but no one is forgiven.”
But this is not a dark novel, either. Or, rather, it’s dark like the earth is dark, sometimes crushingly heavy, but also fertile and alive—partly because of where the story brings us, and partly because the writing itself is so luminous.
Tobak sometimes steps outside himself and uses the third person to tell his story. Here he describes himself at the birth of his son:
“All the roots of his heart are rearranged and knotted up in that one room. When he first sees the baby—little loaf of bread, raisin face—his heart sings a song he’s never heard, a song with one high note that makes the world go quiet.
“We name him after Anna’s father. It makes her cry, but it makes her happy, and she tells me it is like shutting a box she’s kept open for years.”
The book is full of simple but flawless imagery, full of hidden things coming to light and lucid things going cloudy and secret.
When he is five: “There are a lot of things I don’t tell my friends, many things beautiful or frightening—these I carry inside, like coins in my pocket that only my own fingertips know.”
Much of his work is coming to understand why he has always been so at home with the dead. At the end of the book, at home once again, he says:
“The feeling of dirt under my fingernails is one I’ve known almost nowhere besides cemeteries: we never had a garden, and I’ve lived always in cities. In digging, I am a child, and a youth, and a young man and a middle-aged man all in a moment, in the midst of a silence deep as a well. An awareness of faces peering over my shoulder—just here, so near they might lean in and touch me. We all stare together into the dark earth.”
His son, who understands but little of what becomes of survivors, helps him in the graveyard, unearthing the markers laid there to remember the dead they have lost in more ways than one. His son says: “They’re only markers. But perhaps they begin to stand in for what they mark. I can see that.”
Tobak’s response: “I scrape at the soil, cool clay under my nails, and I hold these words of his. The distance between a marker and the thing it marks collapsing into nothing, and then separating again as I note the collapse. And it strikes me that I had better know which it is that I am caring for, and what I am carrying, or else it’s all nonsense.”
Morrill enacts the same responsibility in her writing. She has a deft command of visual symbols, setting out animals and colors, sounds, smells, and sensations for us to savor. They stand sufficient to ground us in the place, but are also carefully selected to carry existential weight. The book is like one long lyric poem, but never self-indulgent. If it were set to music, it would have to be Mahler: So rich in color, so dense and gorgeously dissonant, so tender and so terrifying.
The book opens and shuts, illuminating, clarifying, digging, and gently laying to rest so much of what it means to be human. Like Tobak, we are constantly faced with the choice of just how deeply to become involved.