The British novelist Jo Baker is best known in this country for “Longbourn,” her downstairs version of Jane Austen’s novel about the Bennet household, published in 2013. “The Telling,” first published in Great Britain in 2008, is a subtle ghost story.
In alternate chapters, it tells the story of two young women born 100 years apart, sharing the same house. Rachel, a young mother, senses the presence of a young woman, a housemaid named Elizabeth.
The dual plots are quite simple. Rachel inherits the house and leaves her little family to sort out her parents’ belongings. A chore that should have taken a few days drags into weeks as Rachel becomes obsessed with the house and the ghost who gradually manifests herself.
At first it is “a young woman’s voice, speaking softly, urgently. … Not so much words as a suggestion of speech, like the burn a sparkler leaves behind when traced through the air.” And later, Rachel is “dizzied by a vertiginous slide of images like laundry falling from a high shelf: the static in the air; sunshine streaming under the door on a dull day; a voice. A breath on my neck. Someone in the corner of my vision, waiting.”
Elizabeth feels trapped by her parents’ expectation that she marry Thomas, her longtime suitor. Then a Mr. Moore takes a room in her parents’ house and she is first charmed and then seduced by his erudition and the fact that he leaves books out for her to borrow.
The reverend whose house she cleans asks her to spy on the stranger, as he is a Chartist, an agitator, a democrat and a viper. She pretends to obey but is utterly sympathetic to Mr. Moore.
The novel is less interested in plot, or even characters, than in atmospherics, the feel and textures of everyday life.
“A marriage, a birth, a death. This wasn’t a life. It was nothing like it. Life’s what happens in between. The tease of a flame at a dry twig. Snowflakes melting in upturned palms. The drip of chlorinated water from soaked curls. … These tiny things that change the world, minute by minute, and forever. These perishable moments, that are gone completely, if we don’t take the trouble of their telling.”
In this pleasurable book, Jo Baker “tells” in stylish and precise language that is most satisfying.
Brigitte Frase, a Minneapolis critic, is a past winner of a National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for excellence in reviewing.