Mitchell’s debut novel is an autobiographical account of a young lad in a broken home, living in poverty and surrounded by death and madness.
In 1960s England, 5-year-old John has already experienced life’s worst: He’s watched relatives die, suffered the abuses of an alcoholic father and contended with poverty—all while living in a dilapidated home. But it gets worse. John’s older sister, Margueretta, locks him in the cellar, where he believes something hides in the dark with him. As the boy moves closer to adulthood, he continues to fall victim to Margueretta, who beats him often and slowly becomes unhinged. The ghosts in the author’s book are metaphorical, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of this powerful narrative, which is both a coming-of-age story for John and a blistering chronicle of his sister’s physical and psychological torment of him. The novel also portrays more typical adolescent scenes, like John and his friend, Danny, trying their best to see girls’ knickers or a teacher answering male students’ anonymous and detailed questions about sex. But these plotlines work best as amusing reprieves—not from “that thing in the corner” awaiting John in the cellar, but from the reason he’s in the cellar in the first place. Margueretta’s behavior toward her little brother is despicable; she verbally degrades him, pulls his hair and spits on him. But as the story progresses, Margueretta is more and more terrifying. She starts hearing voices that tell her to kill herself, which she attempts to do with a bread knife. John’s life in a poor family brims with poignant scenes that are both bleak and tongue-in-cheek: John and his twin sister, Emily, visit Auntie Dot, who’s unfazed by either cat hair in the kids’ food or an unlabeled can, donated by church members, and its most unwelcome contents. But it’s Margueretta who leaves the strongest impression, and this is no more forcefully emphasized than when John, seeing his sister’s face during a psychotic episode, says, “Now I know what the Devil looks like.” The title suggests a ghost story, but a boy witnessing firsthand the onset and evolution of a mental breakdown is as bloodcurdling as anything supernatural, perhaps more so.
A startling, sometimes-chilling tale of mental illness and familial abuse.