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, The Time 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?