BOOK REVIEW: All the Beloved Ghosts by Alison MacLeod

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Alison MacLeod is a Man Booker Prize longlisted author (Unexploded) a critically acclaimed novelist and short story writer. Her story collection Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (Penguin) was deemed to be ‘as inventive as it is original’. She is a decorated short story writer winning The Society of Authors’ Short Fiction Award, shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award for her story ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’ and achieved success the following year being longlisted for the International Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award for the same story.

Since 2008 Alison MacLeod has been quietly building steam, honing her undeniable talent, generating praise here, acclaim there and recognition for her short story work and so 2017 brings with it her new collection ‘All the Beloved Ghosts’. MacLeod has with this anthology produced a ground-breaking collection of short stories that strike with such power and tenderness the reader can’t help but be moved by their impact. The book has fifteen deftly crafted stories and includes her 2011 BBC shortlisted National Short Story ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’ if you have not read it before you are in for a treat.

With so many fascinating short stories to choose from; I’ll be focusing on the ones that I connected with personally; starting with‘The Thaw’.

What’s the fastest way to kill a circus? Go for the juggler (jugular).

That’s exactly what MacLeod does with ‘The Thaw’, it has us in 1920’s Nova Scotia where Marjorie Genevieve enjoys a night out in a rather beautiful new and expensive beaver coat, dances with a black musician from Alabama and then takes a ride home with a married man; everyone’s life who Marjorie touched that night will be changed forever. It’s a short story that packs a punch and that for me was enough to have me hooked; it is a story about class and equality, acceptance and fear, executed with the skill of a paid assassin. Utterly Brilliant. From the first lines of this anthology, MacLeod sets the reader up for what is the start of an intrinsically beautiful collection of short stories; MacLeod weaves intensely striking paragraphs that stir emotion, impact the reader and take us effortlessly into the worlds and lives of her protagonists.

Wisdom after the event is cheap indeed – but go back.

The smoky light of a March sunrise is seeping through the winter drapes. Outside, the world is glassy; the trees on Pleasant Street, glazed with winter. Every bare branch, every dead leaf is sheathed in ice, like a fossil from another age, and antediluvian dream of blossom and green canopies. Below her bedroom window, the drifts rise up in frozen waves of white – even the sudden gusts and eddies of wind cannot disturb those peaks – while overhead, the warmth of the sun is so reluctant in its offerings, so meagre, you’d not be alone if you failed to notice the coming of the first thaw.

The year of 2011 sticks out in my mind for two reasons. The first my daughter had turned one and we had arranged a beautiful first birthday party in a local park; the sun was shining, bubbles were blowing and flowing and everyone was having a great time. The second reason this year sticks out so vividly was it was the first time I’d been sent home from work due to rioting. Not rioting myself, I hasten to add. I was working for an organisation helping families in London when we received the call and informed we needed to lock up, shutter the building and head home as rioters were heading our way. It was such a strange time. Looting and rioting breaking out all over; people walked past me carrying boxes of swag from various shops; it would appear that every gang seemed to have come together, laid aside their various ‘beefs’, organised themselves and caused bloody havoc. All of this just before what the country would claim the greatest display of Britishness; the hosting the Olympics in 2012 and in my opinion smashing it out of the park; what a difference a year makes.

‘Solo, A Capella’ manages to sum up the Tottenham riots of 2011 in unnerving detail. When reading I found myself transported to the hustle and bustle, multicultural vibe of North London and more importantly the life blood of Tottenham High Road. I spent many years in Tottenham whilst at University, using it as the backdrop for many a student film project and visiting friends who lived there. MacLeod’s use of language and colloquialisms of the area are spot on and cause the reader to be immersed in this brilliant tale of love and romance with the backdrop of chaos and belligerence.

‘Everywhere in Tottenham that evening, you could smell summer: mown grass from the football ground, the stink of hot tarmac, rubbish baking in the bins and the whiff off the WD-40 cans our yutes was huffing on the estates.’

The way Macleod handles the delicate matters of the uprising on this infamous night are superb (it could be easy to stir the boiling pot, but she avoids this to her credit), affording Macleod the opportunity to take her time in painting an evocative landscape and of the Londoners within it. Her work throughout ‘All the Beloved Ghosts’ is powerfully descriptive, never shying away from difficult truths but rather embracing them and weaving them so beautifully into her works of art that when the final lines of the stories are read you see the whole masterpiece.

‘I saw kids as young as ten. I saw one take a golf club to the T-Mobile window. I saw an old geezer with boxes of trainers stacked high in his arms. I saw people dishing out lottery tickets and cigarettes like they was sweets. ‘Here comes the Revolution!’ one Paki guy was shouting. Hundreds was walking round with the Nike Air Forces, the G-Star jeans, the plasmas, the iPhone 4s, the iPads and stereos. They was trying on clothes in the front gardens of strangers. I saw a women walking away with nappies, soap powder and bags of rice. I watched a skinny guy steal protein drinks from a health food place, while across the street, an old posh lady was waving a bottle of Lambrusco.

I saw old and young, African and Caribbean, White and Asian working together to push up steel shutters. It was harmony for those guys, sweet and true.’

‘Dreaming Diana: Twelve Frames’ this was a delicately crafted story of a major incident that happened in my lifetime – when the news broke of this I was standing on our stairs with my cousin as we were preparing for my sisters birthday – everyone knows where they were when they found out. Macleod adopts some different prose within this story that I found refreshing and comes at a time within the collection where the reader could do with a bit of a lift (as many of the stories deal with tragedy). Spliced into this story are photographs of Princess Dianna, just this subtle change in the story telling narrative, gives this story a more biographical feel and the subtle diary account are what endeared it to my heart. MacLeod has the ability to write about iconic figures but instead of rehashing the many tabloids, articles and column inches dedicated to these celebrities previously; she’s able to bring something fresh, evocative and that confronts our perceptions of what we’ve been lead to believe.

In 1981, I had the Lady Di. I went to Wendy’s Hair Salon on the Bedford Highway and asked for the Lady Di because I didn’t know the name of any other haircut, except the Farrah Fawcett, and I didn’t have the nerve to ask for those feathery wings that were emblematic of Farrah’s pin-up glory.

Wendy cut my hair herself, and didn’t laugh when I asked for the Lady Di, but even she, sucking hard on her cigarette, couldn’t work that magic. On my lap lay a picture of Diana at the London Nursery where she worked. She had a child on each hip, and the sun was streaming through her cotton skirt. She looked melancholy. She wouldn’t smile for the photographer; I liked her for that. The article said the silhouette of her legs through her skirt was a sensation. I didn’t understand. Everyone had legs.

There is nothing I love more than when traveling on the underground, than to people watch; wondering what people are doing, going to, what their occupation is – I could spend hours doing it. The story ‘There are Precious Things’ is remarkable in its simplicity and tells the stories of several people who share a tube ride, each one caught up in all that they hold dear. Structurally it is a delightful piece of storytelling with the several characters popping up through the narrative and interacting with one another; many small stories feeding in to the bigger picture. Towards the end we witness an anti-immigrant tirade from another commuter – again handed wonderfully by MacLeod, she could quite easily shy away from the issue but it shows her courage as a writer by addressing the issue head-on.

‘Last week, when her mother was laid low with flu, she had no choice but to take Obi with her. She cleaned, then closed a stall, and Obi sat inside, legs crossed on the toilet lid with his colouring book in his lap. But whenever she turned, he was out again, grinning over the Dyson Airblade, watching the flesh on his chubby hand ripple in the blast of air. The next day her supervisor informed her that a woman had complained about a boy of ten in the ladies’ loos. Tanisha explained that Obi is only seven. She is on her final warning.’

‘All the Beloved Ghosts’ gives even the ardent short story reader something to discover and enjoy. MacLeod seamlessly reinvents tired genres with her characteristically evocative style and attention to detail, resurrecting stories that we may previously hold opinions over (Princess Diana, Tottenham Riots etc.) and breathing into them new life; in some ways making the reader feel that they are reading about them for the first time. The book focuses on human emotions with many of the stories examining aging and death; it is not the cheeriest anthology I have ever read; MacLeod’s style though ensures that the difficult themes of her stories never become dull whether that be a little golden nugget here or a delectably written paragraph there.

Alison MacLeod’s ‘All the Beloved Ghosts’ explores the human condition with an unnerving eye for detail; I would challenge anyone to read this anthology and not be moved in some way or another.

Alison MacLeod


Alison MacLeod is a novelist, short story writer and essayist.  Her next book, the stor collection all the beloved ghosts, will be published by Bloomsbury UK in March, Bloomsbury USA in April and Penguin Canada in May 2017.  Her most recent novel, Unexploded (Hamish Hamilton UK) was long-listed for the 2013 Man-Booker Prize for Fiction and was one of the Observer‘s ‘Books of the Year’.

Her previous works include the novels The Changeling (1996) and The Wave Theory of Angels (2005), and the short story collection, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (2007).

In 2008, her story ‘Dirty Weekend’ won The Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Award and, in recent years, she has been nominated for The BBC National Short Story Award and The Sunday Times EFG International Short Story Award.

In 2016, she was jointly awarded The Eccles British Library Writer’s Award.  The award is made possible by the generosity of the Eccles Centre at the British Library.  The Centre promotes awareness of the vast North American and Caribbean collection at the British Library, the largest collection outside the U.S.

Alongside her writing, MacLeod has served as a judge for The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, The Mslexia Prize, The International Manchester Fiction Prize, The London Magazine Prize, and The Charleston-Chichester Award.  She is Associate Editor of Short Fiction in Theory and Practice (Intellect Books) and has been a guest on BBC programmes such as Open Book, Front Row, The Verb and Woman’s Hour.  She has appeared at numerous literary festivals, including The Charleston International Festival, The Sunday Times Oxford Festival, The Jaipur Literature Festival and The Hong Kong International Literary Festival.  She also teaches and mentors for groups such as the Arvon Foundation and New Writing South, and has written for The Sunday Times, the Guardian, Prospect and The Ottawa Citizen.  

Her next novel will be published by Bloomsbury UK and USA.  She is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester.

She was raised in Canada and visits often.  Brighton, England is her adopted home.  She is a citizen of both Canada and the U.K.

All The Beloved Ghosts will be published by Bloomsbury on 18th April 2017.

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Review by Ross Jeffery


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