I’m delighted to share my review of Ghosts Like Us by Inez Baranay (originally published by The Newtown Review of Books, June 2016)
‘the air of the present moment here’ This puzzling opening line embodies the essence of a fine literary work: a little obscure for some, fresh air for others. Ghosts Like Us requires a literary reader, one with sensibilities for art, for feminism, for poetry, for magic realism; a reader who might enjoy Susan Sontag’s The Benefactor more than Philip Roth’s Indignation.
In Ghosts Like Us, Baranay deftly enters into the haphazard and self-justifying reasoning processes of her young protagonists. We meet 1980s post-punk singer Trudi, an East Berliner performing her final gig; sensitive visionary poet, Erika, reciting a poem dedicated to the woman she loved in a Berlin Salon in the late 19th century; and Australian performer Lottie, searching for ways to express her artistic impulses in Berlin. The three women, each in her 20s, are bound by a vow.
For Erika did not recite more than a few lines of her poem, and neither did Trudi, both women having fallen foul of different murderous Gustavs, the murderous Gustav – he might as well have the same name because he is in essence always the same – a man ‘whose fakery comes so easily to him it is his authenticity’. Through the Gustavs, Baranay explores the way history, his story, is made up of a dominant narrative, one that eclipses other, less prominent narratives — those uttered by softer voices, even or especially when those narratives are true. This past is also made in the present, out of all manner of falsities. Yet, ‘a true history would be as large as the world, take more time than all of time to tell’.
In part, Ghosts Like Us is a satisfying exploration of the nature of history and remembering. It is an introspective work, one that pulls the reader into the distinctly astute and observant voice of the narrator, who articulates the uncertain musings of each protagonist; like pebbles turned over and over in the palm, their every bump and crevice is considered.
Two of the women are ghosts. Trudi’s life is framed by the Berlin Wall, which went up the day of her birth and came down the day of her death. One wall came down, but not the other walls, especially that of sexism. Trudi, of the successful underground band the Trudi Zahn Trio, is on stage one moment, flat on the floor with her neck broken the next.
Erika looks on. Erika, who had lost her life a century ago. Erika watches from an upstairs window as the free thinkers of the day filed into her patron Frau Stern’s renowned salon. Erika, enamoured with the Traveller, Sibel Hanım, a radical thinker who would go on to influence generations. Erika, who all but went up in flames.
The two women meet in death and their preoccupations focus on another woman: Lottie.
Lottie’s concerns, anxieties and passions are for her performance art and the piece she unexpectedly and spontaneously volunteers to perform at a cabaret night to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall: ‘You have to do something, say something that demands to be said before you even know what it is.’
And she decides, with a sweeping palm landing flat on a pile of papers, to perform one of Trudi’s songs. Once the decision is made, the narrative explores the way Lottie absorbs and is absorbed by her art:
Can an actor be apart from their part? Does not acting, performing, make the self another self?
Through Lottie, it is apparent that Ghosts Like Us is written by an author well travelled, and keen in her observations of Australia; how this nation is perceived and perceives itself – as a multicultural mosaic:
They chose, the country chose, a mosaic, Lottie came to learn, so that it would not have a melting pot. Anglos don’t want to melt.
The story is filled with such observations on culture, art, creativity, history and a curious realm of ghosts.
The present-tense narrative, with its propensity for intimacy and immediacy, makes the space between narrator and reader whisker-thin, smaller still when the reader is addressed directly, with a question striking at the gender bias of language itself: ‘Why is there no feminine form of the word avuncular in English?’
The prose is not only poetic but often ambiguous and subversive, with echoes of Jill Johnston or Jenny Brookes, the forgoing of strictures of punctuation allowing multiple impressions that draw forth a feminine as much as a feminist response in the reader. There are elements of punk pastiche, of disjointed prose commensurate with disjointed realities. The writing is atmospheric, stream-of-consciousness in places, the flowing sentences mirroring the hesitancy and fluidity of youthful thought, and the flow between this world and other ghostly worlds.
Thankfully, Baranay’s magic realism is not dressed with paranormal fancies. There is nothing mystical or otherworldly about Erika and Trudi. Rather, the ghosts are a device, one that allows a fresh approach to a narration that, for all its fluidity, remains controlled and in control throughout — evidence of an assured author.
Ghosts Like Us is a sharply intellectual work, poised, and as avant-garde in its construction as the worlds it depicts. The avant-garde is there for what it attempts to shatter breaks and, ironically, even when the Herr Gustavs of the world seek to destroy the creative soul through jealousy and hatred, Baranay shows that the creative soul will persist, if only as a ghost like us.