Friday 12 October 2018

The Ghostly Father by Sue Barnard

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

family drama
Modern Day

Ah! Romeo and Juliet. We all know the story, don’t we? Perhaps not the whole story, it seems in Sue Barnard’s intriguing novel.

The engaging and witty modern heroine, Juliet Roberts, wants to give her grandfather a significant birthday present. After all, at 100, he has or has had most ‘stuff’ or no longer wishes to have or is no longer able to experience other pleasures. So for his birthday he asks Juliet to translate an old manuscript from Italian to English; she’s had the benefit of studying Italian at university.

She and we set off on a journey with Fra’ Lorenzo, Romeo, Giulietta and the entrancing Chiara between Venice, Verona and Mantua into an alternative, but wholly credible version of the world’s most famous love story. It seems that W. Shakespeare didn’t get the whole story…

A ‘ghostly father’ refers to a spiritual parent, but look out for the subtlety of this name. Romeo is still a bit soppy and Giulietta clever and courageous but adoring. Their love is obvious but never over-sentimental.

While firmly keeping the writing fluent and clear, Barnard uses a style that evokes a sense of the fifteenth century. She sets the story well in the social mores and restraints of the time while tempering it with the wisdom of the friars of St Francis. The research is obvious – locations, clothes, food, religious practice, transport –  but integrated without the least hint of an info dump. This is a sure sign of a good writer.

As a herb-gardener myself, I was more than interested in the herbal medicine. I can smell the mint and lavender in Fra’ Lorenzo’s garden. If I have a tiny criticism it’s that the friars are universally kind-hearted, generous and self-sacrificing. Given the compulsion some of them were under to go into holy orders, perhaps a little more resentment would be realistic. 
This is a gentle story, but intelligent with its twists that are occasionally tantalising. I released a relieved breath several times! And as a little icing, the story gives us a lovely speculative reach between then and now; is Luigi Da Porto a strong link?  Cleverly, Barnard leaves it to us to decide.

Highly recommended

© Jessica Brown

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