The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne

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The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A poignant and moving story of what happens when one sister tricks other sister into spending Thanksgiving with her and their estranged father. It's well-written and cleverly plotted - recommended for purchase as I suspect it will benefit from a second reading.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2006
Publisher: Fig Tree
ISBN: 1905490054

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Cynthia and Frances are their father's two youngest daughters: their elder sister died some time ago. The two remaining sisters get on reasonably well provided that they remain on opposite coasts of America and meet only occasionally. This year it's different: Frances tricks Cynthia into coming back east for Thanksgiving. Their elderly father and his young wife have separated and he is to go into a care home, but he'll be with Frances and her family for the celebration meal. Frances persuades Cynthia that her help would be invaluable in dealing with her father over the holiday.

I've never been very good on families. I'm the only child of two people who might have been only children for all the contact they ever had with their eight siblings. Families have always struck me as a minefield and certainly not a place for the unwary. I'm afraid that Suzanne Berne confirmed all my worst fears in The Ghost at the Table. Cynthia's friend from California sums it up when she says "families are toxic and blood is bloody".

The plot of the book appears deceptively simple and straight-forward, but as you read you'll realise that there are hidden depths. Cynthia is a writer, specialising in fictionalised history. Her current project involves the daughters of Mark Twain and the circumstances in the Twain household bear an uncanny resemblance to Cynthia's own family. Suzanne Berne has obviously done a lot of research into Mark Twain and it shines through in the book, not in the form of facts with which we're bludgeoned, but as a solid background of knowledge.

There's also an excellent knowledge of how families work, with their regular dances of invites which one side knows will be made and the other side knows will be refused, but honour is satisfied on both parts. I laughed at the thought that it was easier if they met in the summer as they could spend more time outside. There's all the manipulation, for the common good of course and the solidarity, despite the horrors they inflict on each other. The sisters' mother died when they were young and the circumstances of her death have never quite been cleared up. Both sisters suspect the other, or their father having speeded the departure and all, rather clumsily cover for each other. The picture painted is of a normal, mundane family life within which extraordinary things are happening. History is constantly being rewritten to make it more palatable.

I warmed to Cynthia, the sister who had broken away and lived life the way that she wanted to. Frances irritated to begin with but as the story unfolded I began to understand rather than like her. All the characters are well-formed, even relatively minor ones such as the Thanksgiving dinner guests, although the women are generally better-drawn than the men. The exception to this is the father, a previously active man disabled by illness and barely able to speak. It must have been a difficult task to paint a convincing picture of a man whose main function seems that of being a problem, without making him a caricature. It was well done.

The poignancy of the novel is underlined by the setting. Frances' home is a New England farmhouse and this particular Thanksgiving week is cold and snowy. There's a feeling of isolation and chill, which is reflected by the family members. The setting was luxurious, but it didn't seem comfortable.

I didn't find the style of writing easy reading at first. Suzanne Berne expects a little effort from her readers, but once given it's well repaid. If this type of novel appeals to you then you might also enjoy Diane Setterfield's debut novel The Thirteenth Tale.

Many thanks to the Publishers for forwarding this book.

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Buy The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne at


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