Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Company of Ghosts, by Berlie Doherty

Talked out of running away from home and a new step-dad, Ellie finds herself agreeing to spend two weeks on a deserted, wild island off the coast of Scotland. Setting off with Morag, a girl she hardly knows from her Orchestra and Morag's family, Ellie is torn between excitement and worrying whether she is intruding.

When circumstances lead to Ellie and George, Morag's brother alighting on the island alone, two strangers begin to become friends. At first Ellie is unimpressed with the corrugated iron cottage, the lack of electricity or running water, the mice, the draughts...but as George shows her the island's secrets and hideaways, the lagoons, lighthouse and smuggler's cave, its wild beauty and mystery cast their spell on her. Before long she is an enamoured with Wild Island as he is. On the second day George nips across to the mainland to pick up supplies. He doesn't come back.

Marooned on the wild and hauntingly beautiful island, Ellie begins to believe she is going mad from loneliness- hearing sounds that aren't there, seeing shadows that can't exist and feeling icy kisses on her sleeping cheeks. For days she puts it down to isolation, tiredness, the wind, the sea...but after a while she cannot hope to ignore the presence of a ghostly young woman who seems to be trying to say something to her.

Ellie feels abandoned by her newly remarried mother and her estranged but beloved father who has moved hundreds of miles away- then she is literally abandoned by the family with whom she is supposed to be going away. I think a lot of readers will be able to relate to Ellie- her grief at the separation of her parents, her struggle to fit into her new life, how much she misses her dad and her frustration at not being able to express herself properly. I think the way that she keeps her head and remains rational, making the best of everything and trying to enjoy her own company are really admirable too.

The segments where Ellie wrote to her dad and drew, sketched and painted the landscapes, her surroundings and all the things she was discovering on her adventure really gave an insight into Ellie's character. She's incredibly brave, firstly, to be able to stare her fear in the face and to quash it by capturing it in paint or ink. She's sensitive and creative and her actions towards the end of the book shows how much she will risk to help someone.

The Company of Ghosts is a really accessible book- I think primary aged kids would even enjoy it. There's something really universal about a good ghost story, and this is full of sadness and intrigue and suspense. Towards the end a dual narrative emerges, the story of the ghost and her tragedy, that winds itself into the present day seamlessly. Also, because the ghost in this book is a tragic, benevolent spirit it removes any real horror from the equation. So no nightmares, no grisly murder victims wanting revenge etc...

It's a well constructed and pleasantly readable book, atmospheric and genuinely chilling in places- the revelation of the ruined shell of the boat, the Spectre  on the previously empty lagoon was brilliant. I liked the characters and the evolving relationship between Ellie and George, and the vivid descriptions of the island and its secrets. It's obviously written by somebody who has quite a mastery of language and plotting...but for me it lacked that little spark of special that makes a Carnegie candidate stand out from the crowd.

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