by Adesua Atamah, Ben Königsfeld, Kathleen Reiswich & Lisa-Marie Richter
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and medievalist who was born in Melbourne. She has been nominated for numerous awards throughout her career as an author and won the Ditmar Award for Best Achievement and Best Novel respectively in 2010 and 2020. Polack has released nine novels and in this blog post we will talk about the topic of antisemitism in her sixth novel The Time of The Ghosts,which was published in 2017, focusing particularly on the Melusine tales.
The idea of Melusine first appeared in European folklore, where she is depicted as a woman with the characteristics of a fish from the waist down, resembling a mermaid. Although, the Melusine of The Time of the Ghosts does not share this attribute, it is hinted at throughout the novel as Ann, who is a friend of Melusine, gifts her the figurine of a mermaid, as it is believed that if you give a mermaid an image of herself, she becomes a fairy and is young again.
The Melusine tales are told in parts through the duration of the whole novel and do not only follow her personal life for several centuries, but also automatically include the history of Judaism and antisemitism, as Melusine herself is Jewish and experiences discrimination in a Christian dominated historical society.
Antisemitism in the Melusine tales
Antisemitism means hatred targeted against Jews. One of its origins lies in Egypt and the Greeks and Romans spread the hatred by retelling Egyptian stereotypes in short stories. Therefore, the Greek and Roman empire created the roots for European antisemitism. During the Middle Ages Jews were often the scapegoat when misery and disease plagued a society. People in the Middle Ages believed that Jews were bewitched by an unholy power due to making a pact with the devil and this superstitious belief caused many Jews to be wrongly persecuted and thus allowed antisemitism to spread worldwide.
In the first Melusine story, which takes place in Kiev in 1643, it becomes obvious that there is shame in appearing Jewish in public. Melusine emphasizes that some people comment on her appearance by pointing out that she does not look Jewish (cp. p.7). This further illustrates the idea that Jewish features are viewed as undesirable in this Christian society. Further, evidence for antisemitism can be found in the first Melusine tale when non-Jewish peasants “decided that Jews [are] vermin” (p.7). Throughout the tales Melusine feels like an outcast due to her Jewish heritage, but she still tries to fit in by partly giving up her parts of her Jewish identity (cp. P.45). Additionally, this phenomenon can also be found in chapter seven, when Melusine visits a village in Germany where she notices that a lot of Jewish people converted to Christianity. The hatred towards Jewish people reached its peak during the Second World War, when millions of Jews were gruesomely murdered by the Nazi Regime. This horrifying historic era is also mentioned in the Melusine tales, when the reader learns that every Jew in the village is murdered by the Nazis 20 years later (cp.122-143).
In conclusion, the novel does a great job in presenting the deep-rooted hatred Jewish people have faced throughout too many centuries. It illustrates the antisemitism Melusine encountered closely and demonstrates how even small comments, such as saying she does not look Jewish, are hurtful. Gillian Polack’s novels often deal with Judaism and her novel The Wizardry of Jewish Women does the same while also catching your interest with topics such as feminism and family.
Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts. Next Chapter, 2021.
When you go to bed at night, you know that once you fall asleep anything can happen. There is a good chance that you are about to go on a great adventure. Indeed, dreams tend to be larger than life. They can make you escape the mundane and experience the exciting. Or they can make you re-live the everyday and put a neat spin on it. Those are the kinds of good dreams attending to our inner hopes and ambitions, yet there are also bad dreams fueled by our deeper fears and sorrow. Nightmares trap you in the most unpleasant situations that fill you with utter despair. Even after you wake up from them and you catch your breath, you are still haunted by them. They are so sinister in nature that they are hard to forget and even harder to overcome.
In The Time of the Ghosts, nightmares are one of the major recurring themes. Kat keeps having them over and over again. No matter what she does, they creep back into her mind and become all the more intense with each new iteration. Kat first confesses her nightmare to Ann:
It’s like I wake up, but I’m still asleep. And there’s something. It sits on my chest and I tell it to get off. It doesn’t. I try to scream, but nothing comes out. And it sits on me heavier and heavier and heavier and I’m suffocating and I can’t do anything. (28)
As she keeps returning to this place of misery, the picture starts to clear up and she realizes that it is “[a]n animal sitting on her chest, pressing the air out of her” (117). She also notices that the “heavier and heavier and heavier” pressure on her chest transforms into a force that “drained and drained and drained” all of her joy (28, 117). Moreover, she suddenly catches the sight of two eyes “piercing [her] soul” that even follow her into the real world (117–118, 190–191).
This disturbing image is by no means unfamiliar to us. Nightmares in which we are unable to move, scream, or breathe are quite common and the overall aesthetic of this vision portrays a rather prototypical example of Gothic terror. But even though this nightmare might not shock us anymore, it still intrigues us as if we had encountered it for the very first time. As modern readers, we pride ourselves on our ability to recognize any literary trope. We think that our intellectual capacity can expose any manipulative attempt to grab our attention. And yet, while reading about this nightmare, we still inch our way towards the edge of our seat. In this rare instance, our reason is outweighed by our imagination, as the Gothic spectacle stands supreme. There simply is something so curious about this nightmare that we cannot help but to give into it. We feel such a strong reaction to the prospect that Kat could die in her dreams, because she has been our character of identification. And this danger seems so real and imminent, because Kat has been portrayed as so innocent and unstable. The Gothic nightmare escalates the tension of this novel, significantly, and imbues it with a greater sense of gravity. After all, it was Edgar Allan Poe who openly proclaimed that “the death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (165).
However, this passage does not just evoke a literary significance, but also a visual one, because the vision seen by Kat is also eerily similar to one painted by Henry Fuseli:
The Nightmare was first exhibited at the Royal Academy summer show of 1782, where it enthralled thousands of visitors. Initially, art critics were puzzled by this image, though, since it “did not make explicit reference to a particular literary or mythological source” (Frayling 11). Consequently, they tried to decipher what inspired this painting by comparing it to similar scenes in established texts like King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Paradise Lost. This debate clouded the painting in “an aura of mystery” that drew an unusual amount of visitors who tried to make sense of it on their own (11–12). Chief among them was Horace Walpole, the writer of the first major work of Gothic fiction, who exclaimed that The Nightmare was a truly “shocking” sight to behold (10). As the exhibition came to a close, critics reconsidered the work and reaffirmed its impressive execution which justified it as a “well conceived” piece of art regardless of its source (12). Afterwards, an unprecedented amount of printings of The Nightmare were distributed all around the world, “until it became the way of visualising bad dreams [and] the design for depicting monsters of the night” (13). Therefore, it should be of no surprise that this exact picture has also made its way into the Australian mindset. Whether it is the author or the character who consciously or unconsciously evokes The Nightmare in their description, it is apparent that the impression of this painting has become part of their mental lexicon.
So, after looking at the literary and visual meaning of this nightmare, one might as well analyse it on a semantic level. Thus, it suddenly becomes interesting how Samuel Johnson actually first defined a nightmare:
Ni’ghtmare. n.s. [night, and according to Temple, mara, a spirit that, in the heathen mythology, was related to torment or suffocate sleepers.]
A morbid oppression in the night, resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast.
“Saint Withold footed thrice the would, He met the nightmare, and her name he told; Bid her alight, and her troth plight. [And aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!]”
(Shakespeare, King Lear 3.4.119–123)
It is quite astonishing how almost everything discussed so far can be contained in this small definition from 1755. First, Johnson examines the etymology of the word and remarks that “mara” can be traced back to its origin as a tormenting spirit in Germanic Neopaganism. Afterwards, Johnson presents his actual definition of a nightmare: “[a] morbid oppression in the night.” This specific term is not unfamiliar to readers of The Time of the Ghosts, though, since Polack also described Kat’s nightmare as “[a]n oppression surrounding her” (117). Furthermore, Johnson explains that the dreamer experiences “[a] pressure of weight upon the breast,” which is also prominently featured in Fuseli’s and Polack’s work. Finally, Johnson references another work of art, King Lear, which was also the same text that critics consulted to make sense of The Nightmare. However, Fuseli, who “made his name as a ‘painter of Shakespeare’” (Frayling 10), has actually cut ties with this canonical piece of literature, since he does not depict a witch or sorceress as the source of evil. Instead, Fuseli refers back to the folkloric explanation of this phenomena. In The Nightmare, a “mara” — a demonic and apelike incubus — sits atop of its defenseless victim and stares relentlessly at the viewer of this scene. And in The Time of the Ghosts, this sensation is being vividly recalled:
I feel strange, she thought. Like those eyes were piercing my soul. Like a hurt lay inside. I don’t know if they made it worse or were investigating to see what it was that hurt. They were clinical, though. Those eyes didn’t care. They may have been human, once. They may have cared, once. But when they were looking at me they were cold and clinical. Yucky. Very, very yuck. (117–118)
We have come full circle. One Gothic nightmare was felt very strongly in a very similar way by two different people, at two different times. And if you have ever experienced a nightmare like this, you know exactly why they stand united in their interpretation of it. Nightmares are truly intense and uniquely distinct.
Frayling, Christopher. “Fuseli’s The Nightmare: Somewhere between the Sublime and the Ridiculous.” Gothic Nightmares. Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, edited by Martin Myrone, Tate Publishing, 2006, pp. 9–20.
The novel The Time of The Ghosts by Gillian Polack contains many different elements that seem to belong to a variety of genres. If one browses a bit through the internet, one will find out that the novel is associated with three genres at once, not just one. In ”The Time of The Ghosts” these are: Horror, Fantasy and Contemporary Fantasy. All genres overlap in some aspects, but also differ.
The Horror of Ghosts?
If one pays attention only to the title of the novel, one might think that it is a horror or gothic novel, because ghosts are a classic example of this genre and the novel is primarily about ghosts; to be precise about ”three ladies” who talk ”about ghosts” (Polack 12). Polack uses other horror elements, such as ”misty figures wandering, whispering shadows” (Polack 13) and shadows, which evoke fear and fascination in the reader. In addition, Polack also uses supernatural elements in her novel, such as souls or spirits; ”I can see spirits and otherworldly things more than ghosts, though” (Polack 16). In addition, death is also a theme in the novel, which is fitting for the Horror genre; such as in the Tales of Melusine.
From Horror into Fantasy
Nevertheless, it is difficult to draw exact lines, as many genres also overlap, such as the Horror and Fantasy genres. In both genres, the forest is mentioned as a feature, as it is considered as a mystical, creepy, dark place on the one hand, but also as a magical place on the other. The forest is most themed in the Tales of Melusine, where it is told how ”the fairy Melusine flew far away to visit the forest of Broceliande” (Polack 17). This aspect also brings us to the Fantasy genre, as the story is about the fairy Melusine, and fairies are one of the most significant features of the Fantasy genre. Another aspect of the Fantasy genre is the motif of various sagas or even folktales, which is fitting for the Tales of Melusine, since it is such a saga. The character of Melusine is a legendary figure of the Middle Ages who establishes a connection between a supra-irid being and a mortal (Märchenatlas). Even with the Fantasy genre, there are overlaps with the Contemporary Fantasy genre, although they are very similar. The Contemporary Fantasy genre is defined as a genre with ”fantasy stories set in a modern setting” (Malatesta), where the characters are set in ”present day setting, with elements of magic and/or magical creatures” (Malatesta). In the novel it shows through the characters Lil, Ann and Mabel who encounter the ghosts and other supernatural beings in Canberra.
Speculative Fiction – Umbrella Term or One Among Many Genres?
Besides the above genres, the speculative fiction genre is also very applicable to Polack’s novel; if not the most applicable. That is because it is not a plot, or a world one knows, since it does not occur in everyday life. Most significantly, as mentioned earlier, there are crossovers in the speculative fiction genre with other genres, which is the main feature. As a result, it would be difficult to assign the novel to exactly one genre. Polack uses many different elements, different genres in her novel, which makes it a very exciting but also, above all, very versatile story, with much to offer.
A. (2020, 23. März). Melusine (mythische Gestalt). Märchenatlas. http://www.maerchenatlas.de/miszellaneen/marchenfiguren/melusine/
Malatesta, M. (2019a, Mai 19). Contemporary Fantasy Genre – Complete List of. Book Genres. https://book-genres.com/contemporary-fantasy-genre/
Malatesta, M. (2019b, Mai 19). Horror Genre Definition – Complete List of. Book Genres. https://book-genres.com/horror-genre-definition/
Malatesta, M. (2019c, Mai 19). Speculative Fiction Definition – Complete List of. Book Genres. https://book-genres.com/speculative-fiction-definition
Polack, Gillian. The Time Of The Ghosts (Enchanted Australia Book 1)
Anyone that has read at least a few pages of the novel can tell that the four main protagonists; Lili, Ann, Mabel and Kat; could not be more different from one another, yet they complete each other perfectly. Three grandmas and a teenager is an odd combination to begin with but facing ghosts together makes for an even more special hobby.
As Kat has only joined them recently, she has never had any real experience with ghosts before. When Ann first meets her, Kat is without a family. Homeless and inexperienced. Ann shares her thoughts about Kat and her personality right in the beginning of the novel.
Ann had never met a teenager like Kat. Compact and self-contained. Passionate beyond belief. Willing to do anything for other people. Not a scrap of an idea of how to take care of herself. Sharp as a razor. Emotionally whipped red raw. Full of contradictions.
It is that passion and will to do anything for others that allows Kat to stick up for her grannies when they were confronted with a group of lubbers in chapter six. When Ann tries to chase them away by telling them to leave Canberra and Australia in general, the situation escalates and she is suddenly surrounded by a big crowd of “manlike creatures with big eyes and bigger mouths” (page 96). The creatures also notice Mabel when she takes two steps back; they start swarming around her pressing her back into a big letterbox.
Kat is shocked by what she is experiencing in that moment.
Kat stood there, stunned. Her grannies were being attacked by little manlike things.
It was indecent. It was wrong. It froze Kat to the spot. Silent. Hurting.
Kat awakes from her frozen state when she hears Lil crying behind her and loses her temper. Stepping forward, she pokes one of the lubbers. She tries to get them to leave by verbally assaulting and insulting them.
At the back of her mind she saw Mabel scared, she saw Ann trapped. “You hurt my grannies, I hurt you.”
What also stands out to me was that Kat takes one step forward while Mabel takes two steps back. Even though Kat is scared and also mentions that she “didn’t like what she saw.”, she still stands up for her grannies as the feeling of anger overpowers her fear.
Harnessing her rage, she expounds a speech on how thousands of teenagers will watch for the creatures and know what to do.
“Just a bunch of teenagers, standing and looking, standing and looking, standing and looking.
Have you ever seen how a teenager can stand and loom? It’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.
It shrinks you inside. It makes you tinier than tiny. […]
But that’s not even the worst thing that will happen to you.”
As Kat keeps threatening them, the lubbers start to back off. The grannies finally find their voices again and help Kat to chase the lubbers away. In the end Lil praises Kat more than once for her act.
“That was so well done of you” […] “We were lucky. […] We had Kat.”
As mentioned before, Kat’s act in this scene shows perfectly how passionate she is for others. She overcomes her fears because she can’t see the people who are really important to her suffer. This makes her a really strong female character in Gillian Polack’s novel. After she has not had a real family in so long, she grew closer to the grannies and claimed them as her own grandmothers.
Overall The Time Of The Ghosts has a lot of scenes that show that these four women have really strong personalities. This scene in particular stood out because it was the first time that Kat had to protect the grannies and not the other way around.
Reference: Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts. Next Chapter, 2021.
What happens when three old ladies take in a 15-year-old runaway? And what happens when these three old ladies are not just your regular neighbourhood grandmas but hunt ghosts as a hobby?
These questions and many more such as ‘How does one have a relationship with a ghost?’ or even ‘How to spend your retirement?’ are answered in Gillian Polack’s novel The Time of the Ghosts.
The story revolves around three elderly (very old) ladies Ann, Mabel and Lil. When Ann meets the teenager Kat, who had run away from home, the three ladies decide to take her in. Over many years the grandmas have spent their time hunting ghosts in Canberra to send them back to where they came from. Once they take in Kat they decide to try and teach her their ways, especially now that some sort of evil spirit is threatening Canberra.
Now judging by both the title and the cover of the book The Time of the Ghosts can easily be classified as a ghost story. And obviously ghosts are very important in the story since the three grandmas spend a huge part of their time hunting them. Furthermore, the novel definitely displays the dark and mysterious undertones of a ghost story. The ghosts presented are all very different in nature and character, ranging from friendly bushrangers to evil spirits.
However, Polack’s novel has much more to offer than that. When it comes to the mythical creatures that occur in the story the different types include ghosts, werewolves, and even fairies, which actually are a huge part of the story.
As explained above, in addition to the unquestionably engaging theme of ghost hunting, The Time of The Ghosts touches on a variety of different subjects that are equally as interesting and important to the story.
Apart from the ghost hunting, the story also follows the personal struggles of the characters that tackle tough issues like divorce, an abusive household or confronting your past as well as the idea of aging. Throughout the novel, these struggles continuously test the friendship between the grandmas especially since one of them seems to be keeping a secret.
From themes like food and nature to the topic of Jewishness throughout different time periods and colonialism to such heavy topics such as abuse and even child loss, the story provides an insight into many troubles one might face in their life mixed with mythical elements, therefore making it very engaging to read. These themes are not only discussed in the main story but also in the Tales of Melusine, a many-century-old fairy, that are interjected in the outer story of the novel. These tales not only give the reader a view into different mythological creatures and stories throughout the centuries but also become relevant in the discussion of who these three, ghost-hunting old ladies really are.
The switch between a third person narrative, the Melusine Tales, which at first seem to be disconnected from the outer storyline, and a first-person narrative in the form of blog posts that Kat is writing alongside the unfolding story adds a captivating depth to it. In the tales of Melusine, the story openly plays with the question of how reliable a narrator is, by mentioning that the narrator of the stories (Melusine herself) is a fairy that likes to play with the truth and is prone to lying. The blogposts, which are never labelled as such and can’t be pinned down to a specific time, give an intimate look into Kat’s thoughts and provide additional information about what she has been doing away from the three old ladies that she calls her ‘grandmas’. Even though these switches in perspective might seem confusing in the beginning, they are tied in together very nicely.
So all in all, The Time of the Ghosts is much more than just a ghost/ ghost-hunting story. It is a diverse story about friendship and family, Jewishness, aging and mystery.
Not Like Other Sirens – The Melusine’s Craving for a Human Soul
Tales of water-associated women, resembling a dragon, fish, or snake, have made appearances in one way or another all over the world. Mentions of sirens, mermaids, figures like the Medusa, to name some of them, aren’t uncommon. But the Melusine, who shares some features with these mythological beings, also vastly differs from them.
Appearing as a normal woman, the foundress of the Lusignan line, a medieval chatelaine and matriarch during six days of the week, the Melusine was cursed by her mother Presine to transform into a serpent, or fish, from the waist down once a week. While other monstrous beings like the siren lured men into traps, effectively murdering them, the Melusine craves for a pure human soul.
The Mother Dragon
To achieve the life she longs for, she must keep her fairy-self hidden from her husband. Her transformations all depend on the betrayal by the male figures in her life. First by her father who broke the promise not to see her mother in childbed, and later by her husband Raymond who spies on her in her monstrous form while she takes a bath. As a result, Melusine is forced to turn from a half-fairy to half-serpent, or half-fish, sometimes even depicted with wings, and lastly into a dragon.
Not only is she burdened with having to give up on her chance of becoming human, but the Melusine also must let go of her husband, status as a noblewoman, and her home. The biggest sacrifice she has to make, aside from relinquishing her human-self, however, is letting go of her children. While she stays away from her husband, she nevertheless continues to visit her children occasionally, even as a dragon, not fully a monster, but a caring mother instead.
Jewish Fairy, Jewish Soul
Over the years since the story of the Melusine was first told by Jean d’Arras, the events and the half-fairy’s appearance have been retold and changed many times. She continued to capture the interest of different cultures all over the world, who adapted her to fit their image and even today, the Melusine still appears in literature and other forms of media.
The Time of the Ghosts by Gillian Polack is only one example in which the Melusine plays a huge role in modern times, but it proves to be an interesting comparison to the old medieval texts that first explored the history of the half-fairy.
In the medieval texts, the Melusine often didn’t only crave to be human, but also for a final Christian death once she had managed to acquire a human soul. The situation in The Time of the Ghosts is similar. While Lil, who is the Melusine in the novel, longs to be human as well, she does not crave a pure Christian soul, but a pure Jewish soul instead.
One of the biggest differences to Jean d’Arras’ Melusine is that Lil is able to give up on her immortality and her winged serpent form. She does so by choice at first and isn’t forced to take on her serpent form at all. On the contrary, Lil can’t take on her fairy form at all throughout most of the novel, even if she tries several times. She does succeed at the end of the novel due to a number of reasons, including her husband and her descendants.
A Fairy’s Family
The Melusine’s family also plays a big role in The Time of the Ghosts. Lil finds a husband she loves in Sebastian and together they have two children. Before they are born, however, Sebastian disappears without a trace. Prior to her husband vanishing, Lil was traveling a lot but ultimately settles down with her children once he’s gone. This starkly contrasts the medieval figure of Melusine, whose husband’s betrayal forced her to leave her home and wander instead.
In The Time of the Ghosts, Sebastian’s disappearance could thus be seen as a betrayal which causes this reversed plot. But just like Jean d’Arras’ Melusine, Lil suffers due to losing her husband and ultimately also her children.
Her son dies early, and her daughter grows up to despise her and her magic, sending Lil away and forbidding her contact with her family, whom she loves more than anything. She continuously attempts to watch over her descendants but can’t reconnect with them due to her fairy-self.
In addition to losing her family, Lil also had to let go of several of her old identities throughout her life, leaving many friends behind as well. Giving up her identities can be compared to Jean d’Arras’ Melusine losing her high status. This aspect is particularly apparent in the novel’s “Tales of Melusine”, where those who knew her fairy-self throughout life had a high opinion of her but eventually ended up dying before her, taking her status to the grave with them. Forced to be alone for years, Lil thus decides to give up on her fairy-self and immortality.
Melusine’s ability to live happily at the end of the novel is only possible due to her husband finally returning and still being in love with her, as well as through the discovery that Kat is a descendant of hers. Kat who, instead of pushing her away like her daughter, longs to spend more time with her. She cares about Kat as she would about her own children and only manages to take on her fairy-self again because she wants to see her grow up and be with her husband again.
Jean d’Arras’ Melusine does not get to experience this happiness as her relationship with Raymond doesn’t end well. Gillian Polack thus flipped the medieval Melusine’s story upside down.
A Fairy’s Form
Another very significant common ground between the two versions is the Melusine’s fairy form. Gillian Polack’s Melusine is also depicted as a woman with a serpent’s tail and golden wings, as well as scales, when she finally shows herself to Kat. In addition to her otherworldly appearance, she is also described as young and powerful, hinting at the magic and special abilities she possesses, just like her counterpart by Jean d’Arras.
Aside from taking on her fairy form, she is also able to fly, use telepathy, and can convince everyone to do what she desires. Furthermore, the novel hints at her ability to see the future when Melusine writes about giving a man the gift of foresight. This power was said to be used by the medieval Melusine. Lil also uses other types of magic, though what exactly she can do is never described in detail. Throughout the time when Lil doesn’t deny her fairy form, she is also described as incredibly beautiful, enticing, and initially immortal.
A Fairy Tale Ending?
In conclusion, while Gillian Polack’s and Jean d’Arras’ Melusines share many traits with each other, like their powers, the loss of those they love and wanting to die as a human in the end, there are also stark differences between the two.
Lil was betrayed by her husband and child, not by being discovered as a Melusine, but by Sebastian’s disappearance and her daughter being unaccepting of her magic. She does, however, end up getting a happy ending. Nevertheless, her ability to give up on her immortality and her fairy-self instead of being forced to shift once a week is the biggest difference in my opinion. But perhaps it is for that very reason, that Gillian Polack’s Melusine is allowed a happy ending and can continue to live with her family, as she accepts her true self and is accepted as such by others.
This blog post is concerned with the way female characters are presented in Gillian Pollack’s The Time of the Ghost. Before the interpretation of the novel can be started, it is necessary to justify the chosen approach.
An interpretive approach, which completely transforms the regarded artwork is in need of justification because there are certain risks associated with it. First, there is the danger of ideologically manipulating the artwork. One might analyze Kafka’s Metamorphosis within a psychoanalytical framework but this inevitably validates the theoretical framework. X no longer means X but Y and this Y is defined outside of the work itself. Second, there is the risk of burying the artwork under a heap of theoretical assumptions. X no longer means X but might mean Y or Z. In both cases there is the danger of obscuring the artwork by interpretation instead of uncovering some elements of it. These negative consequences of interpretation are summarized by Susan Sontag: “(…) interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art” (Sontag 7). Sontag’s rather polemical solution is: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (14). This last statement is too general to be applied to every artwork. But why not analyze Polack’s novel in a way that is more immediate and not so reliant on interpretation? The answer is to be found in the novel’s subject matter. As the title indicates, it is about ghosts and if one does not take this at face value, one is interpreting because the subsequent question is: what do the ghosts stand for? An answer might be patriarchy, the bourgeoisie, the Dionysian element in human consciousness, or the subconscious itself. An interpretative approach could completely transform the novel in such a way that all these answers are possible. Thus, there is always a contingent factor in interpretation because someone is choosing a path to derive this answer and not another one. The justification is the novel’s subject matter which demands to be interpreted in such an emphatic manner that it is difficult to conceive of another approach to it.
“The Three Had Action Down to A Fine Art”
The chosen interpretive approach is concerned with the way female characters are portrayed and how this representation challenges representation of female characters in the past. Jia Tolentino, writing about female characters in novels, asserts: “If you were a girl, and you were imagining your life through literature, you would go from innocence in childhood, to sadness in adolescence to bitterness in adulthood – at which point, if you hadn’t killed yourself, you would simply disappear” (Tolentino 95). It is noteworthy that the three women, who assist Kat in tackling the ghosts, are about 70. Thus, they have not killed themselves nor have they disappeared. Besides that, they have profound knowledge in fighting ghosts:
“The three had action down to a fine art. They didn’t even have to think about it anymore, so often had they moved. Mostly it was for settling restless spirits (which really didn’t take action at all) or for investigating something that turned out entirely phony, but these things were obviously preparation for now. Because now, they knew what to do”
This fighting of ghosts, which is of real importance in the novel since ghosts are supposed to be existent, has a real-life counterpart, which is described by Tolentino: “Women are hunted by memories and stories of one another – shadow selves, icons, obsessions, ghosts” (Tolentino 123). Thus, one might read the ghosts in The Time of the Ghosts as physical manifestations of the psychic processes described by Tolentino (cf. ibid.). A reading which might be substantiated. However, it has to be noted that the novel is composed under the premise that ghosts are real and that they can be fought by certain techniques which of course cannot be transferred in our world. Thus, Tolentino’s description of Ferrante is not entirely applicable to Polack’s novel: “It is transcendent, in the way de Beauvoir meant it, to watch Ferrante’s narrators triangulate themselves from these images, in their emotional and intellectual project of asserting selfhood and control” (Tolentino 122f.).
Real Life Implications
Even though the real-life implications of Polack’s novel are not as profound as Ferrante’s might be, the case can be made that the constellation of female characters, who assert themselves and male spectral characters, who are controlled by the female characters, do have real life implications. This is due to the fact that the reader of novels has certain expectations (cf. Tolentino 95), which stem from other books. These expectations, indoctrinated by readings, influence the way we perceive the world. Tolentino mentions Emma Bovary, the heroine of the eponymous novel: “(…) Emma, a pretty and suggestible farmer’s daughter with a taste for romance novels, gets married to a doctor named Charles Bovary and finds herself confused. Marriage is much duller than she expected (Tolentino 115). In the end, after many failed affairs, she commits suicide (cf. ibid.). Emma, disillusioned by life with no opportunity of asserting herself, does not see any other solution except from killing herself. These storylines influence perception. But our perception is equally, if not more profoundly, influenced if stories differ from those we are used to. In that sense, Polack’s novel might influence the perceptions of the readers for the better.
It was demonstrated that an interpretative approach which adds something to the novel is justified in this case because the subject matter is open for analysis and difficult to handle without an interpretive approach. After this it was shown that Pollack’s novel differs substantially from historical representations of women.
Polack, Gillian. The Time of the Ghosts, edited by Stephen Ormsby and Vonda N. McIntyre, Next Chapter, 2021.
Sontag, Susan. “Against interpretation“. Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Penguin Group, 2009, pp. 3-14.
Tolentino, Jia. “Pure Heroins“. Trick Mirror Reflections on Self-Delusion, 4th Estate, 2020, pp. 95-129.
If a fairy tale is considered to be a tale about a fairy and since one of the main protagonists in The Time of the Ghosts is a fairy, the simple answer would be yes. But if we are looking at the definition of a fairy tale, answering that question is a bit more difficult.
Cambridge Dictionary describes a fairy tale as “a traditional story written for children that usually involves imaginary creatures and magic”. And if we are looking at different tales and folklore it is noticeable that these often go beyond the namesake “fairy” and commonly include other magical beings such as ghosts, werewolves and even dragons. Contrary to popular belief, fairies do not always play a pivotal role within fairy tales, with some stories forsaking fairy characters all together. Therefore the term “fairy” presumably refers to the overarching theme of a fantastical or magical setting, rather than the direct appearance of a fairy.
Since these tales often involve fantastic elements, these stories are primarily intended for children. These stories commonly incorporate valuable life lessons, teaching those who read them certain morals and adequate behavior. In line with their playful setting, they are used to appeal to children in an appropriate yet fun manner, educating and entertaining them simultaneously. Fairy tales appeal to children because of their mystical creatures and in modern times their often happy endings. Traditionally, not all fairy tales do have a happy ending, but ended rather cruelly, which has changed throughout the years to not scare children away. The softened versions, which usually work with metaphors and o ther stylistic devices, still have a great impact on children these days and help them understand culture and heritage more easily.
The Time of the Ghosts
The novel The Time of the Ghosts written by Gillian Polack has two main protagonists, one for each narrative: The tales of Melusine and Kat’s story. These two stories can be viewed as one coherent story because one of Kat’s grandmothers, Lil, turns out to be Melusine who has settled down in Australia. Melusine’s tales end in 1967 (Polack 269) and Kat’s story begins in the 21st century and since Kat is Melusine’s great-great-granddaughter (Polack 311), it is reminiscent of fairy tales such as Rapunzel and Snow White, where the story of the parent or older generation is being told in the beginning and then there is a skip in time and the main story is about the next generation. But because the tales of Melusine are not a sequential story and are littered throughout the novel, the typical structure of a fairy tale is not given, making The Time of the Ghosts a deconstructed fairy tale.
Fairy tale beginning
Usually, fairy tales start with the saying “once upon a time…” and even though the novel does not start with this saying, it appears in the beginning of three tales (Polack 13, 37, 118). The tales are numbered but these numbers do not indicate the order of their appearance. It is also stated in Tale #1 (Polack 152) that it is unclear which tale Melusine wrote first. Therefore, it is possible that one of the three tales that start with the saying were the first one she wrote.
The magical number three is a common theme throughout the novel. As said before, the saying “once upon a time…” appears three times. In her story, Kat meets three grandmothers who help her get back on her feet and give her a place to live (Polack 5). Furthermore, the author uses repetition of three to emphasize bad feelings or uncomfortable situations, for example “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Badkatbadkatbadkat” (Polack 52) and “We saw you, you, you. You walked our streets, streets, streets.” (Polack 172).
The most prominent mythical creature is Melusine who is a fairy. Fairies are also the mythical creature that are most common in European fairy tales (Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella), while the other creatures in the novel are from different folklore. The werewolf, which appears both in Melusine’s tales as a wolf-boy who has been enchanted to be a wolf (Polack 13) and in Kat’s story as a werewolf who has been bitten (Polack 130). Werewolves are common for Swedish folklore. Another mythical creature is the ghost. Many ghosts appear in Kat’s story (Polack 53, 99), as expected of the novel’s title. A known example for ghosts in fairy tales is Mulan which is based on Chinese folklore.
Fairy tales often teach morals to the reader and the moral of The Time of the Ghosts is that communication is important and to be true to oneself. The werewolf in Kat’s story bit one of her grandmothers, Mabel, and they thought that he did it just to hurt her because werewolves are vicious creatures (Polack 131). But then Mabel went back to talk to him again and it turned out that he was just lonely and wished for a mate for himself. After talking to each other, he did not attack again, and they found common ground which emphasises the importance of communication to understand each other (Polack 268). The characters face a lot of prejudice and there are many instances where people must lie about their identity to fit in. Throughout her tales, Melusine often must hide the fact that she is Jewish and a fairy. At a time, she pretended to be Christian for twenty years because she would have been an outcast without any friends otherwise (Polack 234). Once she helped a boy who was stuck being a wolf to become a boy again and as he grew up, she was open about being a fairy. He then man married a woman who was prejudiced against her magic, and she lost her friend because he chose his wife (Polack 15). The only other instance where Melusine did not hide that she was a fairy was when she had two children, Owen and Gwendolyn. But then, one of them died and even with magic, she could not revive him. When her daughter was grown up, she blamed her mother and the fact that she was a fairy for her brother’s death (Polack 214). After losing both of her children, she settled down in Australia to die as a human (Polack 269). She grew old and did not think that she was even capable of becoming her old fairy-self again. In the end, Kat and the ghost of her husband helped her to see the value of life and she transformed into a radiant fairy. This emphasises that once you find your true self, you have the power to live a fulfilled life.
Even though the novel does not end with the saying “happily ever after”, Melusine has found herself again which helps Kat to try to do the same. She tells Melusine that her real name is Gwendolyn, and she is Melusine’s great-great-granddaughter. Due to that fact Kat’s story became Melusine’s story and it ends with a happy Melusine because she had three things: friends, a lover and a great-great-granddaughter.
Something that immediately caught my eye while reading is that Gillian Polack’s novel The Time of the Ghosts consists of three different narratives: the main story, Kat’s blog and the ‘Tales of Melusine’. All three narratives have their own content, structure and narrative situation and they take turns throughout the novel. While the narratives differ in these aspects, they ultimately combine into one narrative.
The First Narrative
The first narrative, the main narrative of the novel, follows the story of the three old women Lil, Ann and Mabel who take in the rebellious young girl Kat, who was homeless. Kat forms relationships with her “grandmothers” and together they explore the world of ghosts, spirits and monsters. This narrative has a third person narrator but what is important to note is that most of it is told from Kat’s perspective, which makes her the main focaliser. The novel uses several spaces and a black line, to indicate that a certain scene is over. The following part of the text then is a time skip, a change in location, one of the ‘Tales of Melusine’ or one of Kat’s blog posts.
The Second Narrative
The second narrative is Kat’s blog. It is asynchronous, as she is writing her blog rather irregularly throughout the novel and the entries are not closely tied to the surrounding narrative. Mostly the topics of her blog include research she has done on monster and ghost sightings, reviews of the ‘Tales of Melusine’ she has read so far or a journal of events involving her grandmothers. Kat calls her infrequent posts “snippets of lives” (p. 162) and compares them to the ‘Tales of Melusine’ (cf. p. 162). Sometimes she writes about her past, her family and her nightmares. In this narrative Kat is a first-person narrator. That, and the fact that she is writing about her own experiences, gives the reader a much closer look into Kat’s character compared to other characters in the novel. For this reason, I found it easy to connect with her character more deeply. Another important thing to note is that her blog posts are unlabeled. They do not have a title and, as mentioned above, are mostly identifiable through breaks in the text and a switched narrator. Therefore, at first glance they may look like a continuation of the main narrative but these posts have their own voice. As Kat is a fifteen-year-old girl and she is also writing a blog rather than a literary mode, her language is more colloquial and she is often voicing her opinion on whatever she is writing about.
The Third Narrative
The third narrative consists of the ‘Tales of Melusine’. They are little snippets of the life of the fairy Melusine, later revealed to be Lil, over the last 500 years and they are written like fairy tales. I would argue that the novel wants the reader to see them as such most of the time, as some tales which appear in the novel start with “once upon a time” (p. 13). Another special feature is that the tales are, unlike Kat’s blog posts, labeled and sequenced, yet also achronological. For me this was interesting as in some tales there was no indication in which century they took place, which made them seem more mystical and mysterious. What these tales also do is point at issues connected to Jewishness and Jewish-Australianness. The tales are written in third person narration and have Melusine as the focaliser. Looking at these tales in terms of narrative structure, I would say that they are an embedded narrative, a story within the story so to speak, with the main narrative as the frame narrative.
In the end, the three narratives combined make for a great novel. While the switch of narrative often felt pretty random, one still sees the connection of the narratives by the end of it. The change in perspective, writing style and narrative elevates the mysteriousness of the story and while sometimes the order or the switch of the narratives seems illogical, by the end of the novel one still got the feeling everything made sense and the mysteries were solved.
How does one spend retirement? For some people, the answer lies in quaint gardens and relaxed hobbies – but what if that hobby is ghost hunting? In Jewish Australian writer Gillian Polack’s 6th novel, TheTime of the Ghosts (2017), work doesn’t end with retirement. The story follows the three (in several respects) old friends Ann, Mabel and Lil, who spend their evenings tracking down and scolding away the supernatural creatures of Canberra that do not belong and have been imported in the course of colonization and globalization. One day, 15-year-old runaway Kat is taken in by the trio and joins them in their adventures. Evil forces threaten Australia, and only with Kat’s help the trio has a chance to stop them.
But everybody has their ghosts. Each friend struggles with their own: Ann, who has just retired and who is nearing an ugly divorce, struggles to find her purpose and thereby becomes an easy target for the evil spirits that haunt Canberra. Mabel, who has trouble letting people in, finds herself in a bizarre love affair that simply cannot have a happy ending. Lil fights with the ghosts of her past, which have caused her to give up on her future a long time ago. Lastly, Kat has seen no other choice than to flee from a home of neglect, and must now try to get back on her feet. Accompanying the story of the four friends are the tales of Melusine: an ancient fairy from Western Europe who tells her life over the centuries in short stories, telling tales of the supernatural, immigration, human tragedy, and secret identities. Melusine must disguise herself as a human and, most of the time, hide her Jewish heritage in order to be able to live among others in peace, but consequently never finds true connection to those around her.
Polack’s novel has a lot to offer to a broad readership; with its heart-warming premise of the grandmas taking in a kid in trouble, it certainly feels empowering to watch Kat slowly heal from her past and from her bad habits. But as may have already become clear, the book runs even deeper than the characters’ friendship: Polack touches on difficult topics such as abuse and neglect, but also on themes connected to Australia and its history, among which are Jewish immigration, colonialism and the consequential import of cultures foreign to the continent, and Australia as a convicts’ colony – the ghosts in The Time of the Ghosts surely are not all just of mythological nature. While one could criticize the fact that these serious topics are mostly lurking beneath the surface of the story and are not discussed extensively, the novel seems not to lay the focus on the issues themselves, but on how those affected manage to deal with the aftermath in their own lives; this could transform the underlying victimhood of those suffering to a form of agency and self-reflection.
The slow burn with which the tales of Melusine develop may seem slow paced and interjected randomly in the beginning, but the more the reader gets to understand their connection to the main story line, the more intriguing and engaging they become, until the reader feels like a proper detective about to solve a puzzle. The story is also full of parallels and doubling-elements for the reader to spot, like the similarities of Kat and Lil’s secret identities (especially considering their relation), their need to flee, and their tendency to process their emotions in the form of writing – Lil in her autobiographies and Kat via her blog.
But what might be most intriguing is the uncertainty with which Melusine frames her stories: while fairy tales are usually known to be invented, nobody can say for certain with the tales of this fairy. While the experiences described seem to be the real experiences of the character, Melusine herself chooses to cause chaos by suggesting that her stories might not even be true and by mixing up the timelines.
The Time of the Ghosts is a multifaceted love letter to artistic blurring of lines combined with a bitter-sweet story of friendship, loss, identity crises and growth. Despite its dark undertones, the novel offers hope and a much needed happy ending – or does it?
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