It’s a tiny little book, weighing in at a mere 27,000 words, and I think technically it’s meant to be middle grade – the vocabulary is simple, and I seem to remember the protagonist and her ghostly friend both being 11 years old. But the prose style is flawless; it’s lyrical, poetic, mesmerizing. I was equally captivated by it as a teenager and as an adult.
It doesn’t explain itself at all, to the point where I only remember the ghost being labelled as such once. Instead it lets the sense of what’s going on accumulate gradually, through vivid description and dialogue, like adding wash after wash of watercolour. This is as true of the relationship between the main character and her mother as it is of the supernatural elements. It’s perfectly evocative of a memory – appropriately enough, given that it’s framed as such – or a dream.
Also dream-like are the apparently random but utterly immutable “rules” of the supernatural. You can go back in time going up one staircase, but not the other; you can only carry things going one way. We know these are rules because we see what happens when the characters bump up against them, not because anybody lays them out. And the story seems to spring up around the rules, instead of the other way around; the authorial hand is never visible. This adds immeasurably to the spookiness. The ghost’s increasing state of decay, for instance, is scary not just because it’s crystal clear in its gruesomeness but because it’s so bizarre and so understated.
I find that the acid test for a really great book is whether it improves or changes when you come back to it, and this one seems to have another dimension to think about and admire every time I re-read it.