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Tabula Rasa

The Time of the Ghosts

By Gillian Polack, Satalyte Publishing, 2015

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

"It's a matter of cultural transfer. We bring our ghosts and fears with us into new lands. We carry them deep within us… Some of those deep constructs lend themselves particularly well to mapping."

This book is about mapping Canberra. Its tools are history, folk tales, bloodlines, hauntings: all the real markers of place and an individual's position within in. If this individual happens to be a five hundred year old fairy (variety, Melusine; type, snark), it provides a very useful key to the unfolding terrain of ghosts, werewolves, abbey lubbers, dark whispers, a cat vampire, a barghast and the three kindly, kind-of witches attempting to restore the order that all this cultural transfer has upset.

But, like Kat, the fifteen-year-old runaway drawn into this milieu, you will need to be patient. You will have to be willing to do some of the lifting and your own thinking, and trust that this story will work out in its own time. Even though this is the real world, "…where real people run away rather than kicking ass. What if Melusine was scared?"

Dr Gillian Polack does not compose simple books, although the various historical vignettes, present-day supernatural encounters and dinner parties are all cast in lovely, clear prose (and those scattered pieces dated some ten years later – watch out for those). It's the way they are fitted together: like the menus of those dinner parties, some of which are overtly magical. A garden can be magical if the right trees and herbs are laid out in the right configuration. And the torturous thought processes of a teenager can be among the most potent configurations of all. When the very streets are turning on you, it doesn't pay to dismiss intuition, and it certainly would not pay to skip a "slow" paragraph or dismiss a seemingly irrelevant detail. I found myself flipping back and forth, to make sure that something indeed read as I remembered and that this latest snippet meant what I thought. Polack doesn't cheat: the information is all there. But this map isn't going to show you the quickest route, rather, the most meaningful.

This is because much of the action takes place inside people's heads. The first impression you receive of a situation will generally be how that person feels, with the actual circumstances filtering through as it plays out. What this achieves is a strange but effective levelling of the playing field, where the realisation that an elderly friend is a fairy arrives with no more fanfare than the discovery that an elderly friend is having sex. Indeed, the latter may be considerably more traumatic. Polack's idea of magic is at least fifty percent psyche-out and intrinsic to the wielder's soul. And if that fails, bus routes supply another good way of dealing with recalcitrant ghosts.

But between the cooking and the emotional melt-downs, the sense of otherworldly horror is strong. Despite individual successes, the threat to the protagonists and the city rises steadily towards the Terror Time. It should already be clear from what was said about cultural transfer that the entities concerned are not indigenous to Australia. The mandate of our kind-of ghostbusters is very clear: they interfere with nothing that was already here. Canberra's ancient spirits are both acknowledged and quite safe. The nationality of the Shadow Child? That one is universal.

In many ways, this book is about the process and the necessity of learning, and of keeping learning for as long as life flickers. Learning, for Polack, is an unlimited activity and includes, of necessity, dealing with what you learn. There are always choices to be made, some of them hard, but the right decisions lead to growth. And growth is marvellous.

"Daphne," Lil said, "I love the scent of daphne."

Someone had to write this down. We may be glad that Polack did it with such humour and compassion.


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