10 Questions with Gillian Polack on The Time of the Ghosts – and one bonus!

Before we move onto the second phase of our student blogging, let’s end our series of blog posts about Gillian Polack’s The Time of the Ghosts with an interview with Gillian herself!

1. Why is the novel entitled The Time of the Ghosts – which ghosts were you thinking of when you named it? And what makes now the time of the Ghosts?

I love making bad jokes. I ought to apologise for this, but I find my own tendency to bad jokes amusing, so I won’t. My working title for the novel was “One Cup of Tea at a Time” because that was pretty much how my heroes saved Canberra. This wasn’t catchy enough to sell the novel, nor did it make me chuckle inside.

The “Time of the Ghosts” is a time when Canberra is haunted, my characters are haunted … and I am haunted. (I was trying to see Canberra from ways that reflected my own culture and mainstream Aussie culture kept rudely haunting me.) I had to ask a friend to give me a ghost tour. This friend is bicultural (Indigenous Australian and European Australian) and was able to help a great deal. Since haunted Canberra gave me the solution to my own haunting, The Time of the Ghosts was perfect. (Not all my titles have this kind of history.)

2. We noticed that there was a lot of ‘mapping’ in the novel – the gardens were mapped, the magic was mapped. Any particular reason for mapping to play such a prominent role?

Well-spotted. I actually have an annotated street directory of Canberra. I can take pictures of it if you want to see it. I superimposed a Ptolemaic universe and all the important Canberra hauntings on the city and I used that as a base for the movement in the novel. Earth in that universe is around Commonwealth Bridge. Every single bit of ghost or haunting or creature that I added, fitted the Ptolemaic universe imposed on Canberra.

I did this because Canberra is a planned city and the people who did the planning were Theosophists. I also did this because I wanted a reason for Sebastian to be able to find Melusine. It gave me a sense of creating a tiny world that was coherent. Other alternate Canberras I’ve written about are not nearly this coherent.

3. In general, a lot of our students felt that the cover we had gave the wrong impression of the text. How do you feel about it? How much say did you have in it?

I had no say in the current cover. It was designed to fit sales paradigms for Amazon. I had some say on earlier covers by other publishers, but not as much as I’d like.

There was a reason for this. Some novels are really hard to do cover designs for, and my novels almost always feel into that category. When I get an exceptional cover that reflects the novel and is lovely in its own right (and I’ve had several of those) I want to throw a party.

I’m better off than some of my friends, having said that. Russian editions of Australian fantasy novels of 20 years ago have particularly bad covers. Three friends of mine who write fantasy trilogies used to show us their covers and, while we envied the translations, we did not envy the unicorns and the palm trees and the totally wrong characters.

4. In The Time of the Ghosts, you have a positive vision of a bushranger playing a big part in assisting our protagonists. We found this super interesting, since bushrangers are looked at more and more critically these days. Why did you make this choice?

There are many bushrangers linked to my region. In the 19th century, it was known as the Monaro, and there were turf wars by bushrangers at various times. Also, Jackey-Jackey’s treasure is actually supposed to be buried on Black Mountain. That’s where I began.

I’ve been interested in bushrangers since I was in primary school. When I was in Grade Six, I did a project on Ben Hall. “The Streets of Forbes” (a song) is still one of my favourites. I was never a fan of Ned Kelly and John Dunn was a mass murderer, so I didn’t depict Jackey-Jackey as a good bloke because of being in love with the notion of bushrangers.

I researched his life (which was fun) and realised that I couldn’t possibly depict the actual person. He was complex and fascinating and doesn’t easily fit in descriptions such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. He was polite to people and didn’t cause as much damage as many and he actually stood up for human rights in some difficult circumstances. There was enough charm in the real person and conscience in the real person to make his character credible. He made a good ghost. The Clarke brothers, on the other hand, have only ever been loved by their family. That family lives around Araluen way (not too far from me, very close to Jackie French). They stopped chatting with me when the novel came out…

5. Lil, at one point, describes that she sees convincing non-Australian ‘myths’ etc. to leave Australia as part of her task – yet Melusine goes to Australia because she perceives it as empty at first. Can you tell us about this development in her character?

When Australia was settled by Europeans, a doctrine known as Terra Nullius was established. It was nasty. It assumed that there were no humans here ie that settlement was just fine. It became the way that Australia was depicted – even if people knew that there have been humans here for tens of thousands of years, they tended to assume that most of the land was empty or that the people were fading or in some way lesser. It’s a pretty horrible doctrine. It was, however, part of what made Melusine feel that Australia was empty at first, and why she discovered she was wrong.

The other part of it came straight from my childhood. I grew up with Holocaust survivors who were friends of my parents and grandparents and who dropped in for a cuppa. Melbourne is one of the places that many survivors came to. More, proportionately, than went to the US. When I was an adult, I finally plucked up the courage to ask them, “Why Melbourne?”

There was no doubt that they had to flee. So much of Jewish history contains other people forcing Jews to flee or die, that I’ve known about that element since I was about six. I didn’t understand why this very British and somewhat racist country was a desirable destination.

The answer was distance. We were as far from the Shoah as it was possible to get. Australia was not well-known to Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s only recently that Europe has started to see us as a country. That is where some of the emptiness lies: in Melusine’s perception of Australia as a continent. It was free of a lot of the things she knew from Europe and thus… it was empty.

6. One thing we noticed was that each of Melusine’s tales began with a traditional “storytelling” approach or phrase. In one case, Once upon a time… In another, you introduced the date-setting a la 1984. Did you intend for each tale to reflect on a different kind of storytelling, even from their outset?

I did. I wanted to play with the idea that all stories have cultural bias and that every single introduction sets up an expectation for the reader and that part of that expectation is bias. I set up the different atmosphere and mostly retain it, but I’m doing it in order to undermine what readers think they trust.
If you want to compare this to a novel which uses a more standard fairy-tale structure, The Art of Efffective Dreaming uses the Sleeping Beauty story. It’s still subversive, but in a different way.

7. As this interview is published on a blog… Why did you decide to present Kat’s blog posts without distinguishing them much from the rest of the text (unlike Melusine’s tales, for example)?

Let me shamefully admit that I was just messing with readers’ minds. Some readers complain they have to read every word I write and I’m afraid that is entirely intentional on my part and Kat’s blog is an example of how I force long-suffering readers into that terrible hard labour. Where I am most evil in this regard is in The Year of the Fruit Cake.

8. Of course, one aspect we focused on was the novel’s Jewish and Jewish-Australian elements. By making Melusine a (quasi-immortal) Jewish fairy, you create a space for discussing Jewish experiences throughout history. Can you tell us a bit more about this decision?

This historian side of me is faced every day with the erosion of Jewish history. Just yesterday I read a blog post about the history of pasta that claimed that the first mentions of pasta outside China and its region were Arab… but the examples and terms given were from the Talmud. Since I am (by training) an historian of Western European history, I know Western Europe best and it was the obvious place to look. There are a bunch of Medieval family-origin stories (the one about Melusine as a guivre is the Lusignan one) that I looked into and that gave me a path.
There are heaps of Jewish supernatural creatures I could have used, and some of them appear in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, but I thought that a Jewish fairy based on the family ancestor stories would be more fun for readers in the context of the story I wanted to tell in The Time of the Ghosts. I needed the length of life, and I needed that European connection. When Melusine flies in the story, she looks exactly like Melusine does in the illuminated manuscript of the Duc de Berry. That’s a moment when our world touches that of the novel.

9. One thing our students noticed was that Kat’s perception of the older women doesn’t always seem to line up with their behavior. In a way, this caused the characters to ‘blend’ together into a more cohesive unit for many of them. Did you play off of Kat’s reliability in this way mainly for this effect, or more so to represent her teenage voice?

I wanted Kat to be distinctive and showing what she thought of people as a contrast to what those people did was an easy way to do this without undermining the tale itself. It also meant I could show her growing in the way teenagers do, as a contrast to the way the other characters grew, so I guess her teenagerhood was an element.

10. Last but not least, are all the recipes that are described in the book ones that you use?

Yes and no. I’m an ethnohistorian and part of my historical research is often into food and foodways. I’m also a foodie. I can cook (and have cooked) most of the recipes in the book but they reflect the foodways of each character. You can tell a lot about a person by what they cook and how they serve it. Mabel cooks traditional Australian English-origin food, for example, and will make scones in just a few minutes if anyone drops in. She will serve them with cream and with her own jam. Her recipes mostly come from my own childhood, but there will be variants in any CWA (Country Women’s Association) cookbook until the late 1970s, when Australian foodways changed a bit.

I put just one scene in to act as a path in, for anyone who wants to explore this, and that’s the scene where Kat makes the three older women coffee.

And since one of our students wrote to Gillian on her website, we’ve also got her response to his question!

Dear Gillian Polack, my name is Ben Königsfeld and I study English at the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf. I take part in a course about Australian speculative fiction taught by Lucas Mattila and Tina Burger, who you might remember from the event two weeks ago called ”Jewish Australian Speculative Fiction Writers in Conversation”. We are currently writing blog posts about your book The Time Of The Ghosts and I am focusing on the stories of Melusine. I was wondering if you could tell me if anything particular inspired you to write these stories and how much, if at all, the Melusine of European folklore influenced them. Furthermore, I was wondering what your intention behind the stories were. I hope these questions aren’t an inconvenience. Sincerely, Ben Königsfeld

Dear Ben,

I was going to write you a separate reply, but most of my answer to you overlaps with the answers to the other questions. The important bit that doesn’t is that Melusine stories as I know them (the 15th century one by Jean d’Arras is the one I know best) are more ancestor tales than fairy stories. I dragged her into another genre and she is nothing like the French Melusine except in that she is magic and her non-human form is the same. It wasn’t that Jean D’Arras didn’t influence me. I took that influence and asked “What story would I have liked if I were Kat’s age? What would have grabbed her interest enough for her to read something she really shouldn’t?” The story I wanted was one of survival and of cultural survival. I wanted readers to see what certain aspects of Europe might have looked like through Jewish eyes, but needed to make those eyes privileged. I wanted to change the stories we often hear about our ancestors… that survival is enough. Survival is never enough. This is why I wrote Melusine the way I did.

I don’t know if I succeeded in my goal. I do know that I learned a lot in writing the novel. I’ll keep trying.


Follow Gillian on Twitter!

This interview was carried out via correspondence by Tina Burger and Lucas Mattila.

Judging a Book By its Covers: The Time of the Ghosts

by Theodora Charalambous

Everyone knows the age-old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and although most of us try to implement it in our daily lives, when it comes to the book buying experience things seem to be a bit different. If you’ve ever visited a library or a book store you know quite well how tedious the process of finding the “perfect” book can be when there’s an overwhelming amount of literature and more waiting for you on the shelves. You make your way to the aisle of your preferred genre and now what? What’s the deciding factor that makes one choose a book? Let’s be honest, it’s the cover! Whether it’s a beautifully illustrated cover, a hard cover with interesting engravings on it or a very minimalistic one, the one that manages to steal your attention, is the one getting picked up first.

On this blog post, I will be discussing how the three book covers made for the novel The Time of the Ghosts, written by Jewish Australian author Gillian Polack, reflect on its story and whether or not “Don’t judge book by its cover” is bad advice.

Let’s start with the original 2015 cover by Satalyte’s in-house designer, Marieke Ormsby. The design, as the writer described it, is more of a contemporary fiction cover. There is what resembles mist on top of a faded dark green background, with the main focus being four small
white figures of women, each floating on top of a white tea cup. This cover also includes the

Someone has to write this down.
Someone who has seen it all.
Seen the ghosts.
Eaten the food.
Even washed the dishes.

Polack‘s favorite cover edition is the second one, that was designed by Book View Cafe, more specifically by writer and cover designer Maya Bohnhoff. It consists of four photos; the very first, is one of an older woman in a white dress and a straw hat, hugging a bouquet of carrots under a tree. The other three are, a straw hat on top of a small garden table, a tea cup and lastly a picture of a road. The background is a grayish ripped cloth overlapping a deep purple one, which compliments the sepia toned photos perfectly. The cover has the writer’s personal touch, as the images of the teacup, the road and the background cloth are pictures taken by Polack herself.

Lastly the 2021 edition cover art is by NextChapter, and the one I personally own as well as the reason behind the idea of this blog post. The book cover is outlined with a small detailed design reminiscent of a golden picture frame. Two open doors reveal a rundown corridor and its rusty wooden floor, with a single window shining light to reveal the figure of a white woman wearing a wedding dress, or perhaps a gothic Victorian nightgown. Exclusively in the 2021 edition, the phrase “Enchanted Australia Book 1” hovers above the title.

When I first got my hands on this novel, looking at the recent cover, my expectations of what the story would be about definitely did not fit the actual plot. The novel follows the lives of three elderly women and the teenage girl runaway, who they’ve taken in, as well as their adventures chasing away ghosts and other supernatural creatures to protect Canberra. The Time of the Ghosts is so much more than your typical ghost story. It’s about friendship, bonding over tea, protecting the place you call home and overcoming your own inner ghosts. The first two cover art designs, undoubtedly encapsulate the essence of the novel perfectly, the women, the tea and the hidden mysteries of Canberra.

So, should we trust book covers or not? The answer is yes…but maybe not always. Covers are usually very carefully designed and picked to provide just enough information about the book to the potential reader. For example, the cover usually indicates the genre of the book, as certain trends tend to show up more across specific categories. Consequently, some covers can be misleading, as they are designed to reel in a particular demographic that would normally not be interested in the book. In the case of The Time of the Ghosts the 2021 cover art is quite deceiving, as it leads one to suspect that the novel’s genre is horror. Additionally it can create the misconception that the novel is a part of a trilogy called Enchanted Australia. However, the reason behind this design was to sell copies on Amazon, which is why it doesn’t represent the novel’s story as closely in comparison to the first two editions. Even so, my experience reading the book was a good one, making the cover’s deception a minuscule problem, if one at all.

Most of us judge books based on a list of certain criteria and not solely on one factor. Whether that list includes the title, the author, the description and so on, we cannot dismiss the importance of the cover design. Perhaps, next time you’re looking to bring a book home, try choosing it simply by its cover.

Images Used

Ormsby, M. J. (2015). The Time of the Ghosts cover art, 1st edition [Illustration]. The History Girls. https://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2016/02/discovering-what-characters-eat-gillian.html?m=1

Bohnhoff, M. (2018). The Time of The Ghosts cover art, 2nd edition [Book cover]. Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Time-Ghosts-Gillian-Polack/dp/1611387205

NextChapter. (2021). The Time of the Ghosts cover art, 3rd edition [Illustration]. Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Time-Ghosts-Enchanted-Australia-Book/dp/103456353X

Antisemitism in the Melusine stories

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.

Different Genres in Gillian Polack’s “The Time of the Ghosts”

by Leonora Rexhi

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)

Traces of Jean d’Arras’ Melusine in Gillian Polack’s “The Time of the Ghosts”

Heinrich Vogeler creator QS:P170,Q213734 , Vogeler, Heinrich – Melusine – Barkenhoff Worpswede, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

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.

Interpretative Approaches to Women in “Time of the Ghosts” – Academic Musings

by Benedikt von Laufenberg 

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.

Interpretative Approaches

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”

(Polack 84)

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.

Narrative(s) and Structure in Gillian Polack’s “The Time of the Ghosts”

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.

“The Time of the Ghosts” by Gillian Polack: A multilayered story with lots to offer

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? 

Jewish-Australianness and Gillian Polack’s ‘Melusine’

Gillian Polack is an important Australian writer and Medievalist who was born and raised in Melbourne. Her heritage and religion have had a great influence on her writing, but not only that – her Jewish-Australianness shows us the importance of representation and diversity in print media.

Polack shows in her writing and in her interviews that the strength and empowerment that came from her Jewish-Australianness should not be underestimated. It shows that bicultural identities should be valued and supported in order to underline the beauty of it. Being part of one culture does not eradicate or diminish the other part of a person and even showcases that a person is not half of anything. They are a whole entity, an entire and complete person that is part of more than one culture and religion. Jewishness does not disregard one’s Australianness, neither does one’s Australianness disregard their Jewishness. On the contrary, transcultural identities enrich the amount of perspectives that come into play and show the diversity of society and represents the state of the world. This is emphasised ever so effortlessly by Polack, for instance in her novel The Time of the Ghosts.

Her protagonist is a fairy named ‘Melusine’, also referred to as Lil (presumably short for Lilith) at times – Melusine’s background derives from the European folklore figure and is described as half woman and half serpent or fish. In The Time of the Ghosts, however, ‘Melusine’ is depicted as a Jewish fairy. This fascinating occurrence of both Melusine’s having more than one identity comes as no surprise once we remind ourselves of Polack’s expertise in Medieval studies. Her writing strikes the audience’s interest especially when you bear in mind that there is a personal nuance and influence on it as well. You can approach this perspective from a biographical point of view by taking Polack’s medievalist background into account and take a closer look at ‘Melusine’, the folklore figure and Polack’s character ‘Melusine’ – the first one is a woman who must hide her true identity as a female spirit of fresh water from her husband and her surrounding and the other one as a fairy who has to hide her Jewish identity as well as her fairy-being in order to protect and shield herself at times.

This depiction in Polack’s The Time of the Ghosts indicates that all the different cultures that a person consists of make them who they are. ‘Melusine’ serves as a great metaphor in this sense and helps people to understand the struggles of growing up in multiple and mixed cultures. The beauty and enrichment it can bring to you once you learn about your cultures and beliefs by getting in contact with them is an important aspect in staying in touch with your culture and familiarising yourself. Learning your language or also trying to connect to your cultures’ cuisines are tools to stay in contact with your heritage, as Polack herself has done through cooking with her Jewish grandmother and trying to learn Yiddish and Hebrew.