A lesser crime

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The Ghost at the Table
by Suzanne Berne
Fig Tree ₤15.99, 304 pages
FT bookshop price: ₤14.99

In 1999, American writer Suzanne Berne won the Orange Prize for Fiction with her first novel, A Crime in the Neighbourhood. A creepily compelling story narrated by 10-year-old Marsha, it concerns the sexually motivated murder of a young boy and its repercussions on his middle-class community.

Berne’s third novel, The Ghost at the Table, is another slice of dark domesticity - one that, unfortunately, pales in comparison to the author’s stellar debut. The tale of two very different sisters with contradictory takes on their dysfunctional childhood, it is also a chilling whodunit that attempts to uncover the sinister secret at their family’s heart.

Narrated by Cynthia Fiske, a thirtysomething writer who lives alone in San Francisco, the plot revolves around her Thanksgiving visit to her older sister, Frances Kilmartin - whose life seems to be the zenith of Sunday supplement perfection. Beautiful and blonde, she is married to a radiologist, Walter, with whom she has two daughters. They live in an immaculately decorated colonial house in a New England village, where Frances runs an interior design business and dedicates her days to quilt-making, serving tea in fine porcelain and folding sprigs of lavender into newly washed linen.

Unbeknown to Cynthia, Frances has organised for their estranged father, Robert Fiske, to share the turkey and pumpkin pie. Elderly, recovering from a stroke and barely able to speak, Robert is the living ghost at the table. The actual ghost of the title, however, is that of the sisters’ mother, Elizabeth, who died after a lengthy illness when they were teenagers. Cynthia, Frances and Robert have long held very different ideas about the exact circumstances of this death; horrendous, unspoken accusations lie behind their years of separation.

Cynthia is a troublesome narrator from the start. At first it is because she is not likeable - appearing cold in her resistance to her sister’s invite and her reluctance to help take Robert to a care home. But, as the story unfolds, her reliability also comes into question. In the first part of the book she depicts Frances as a neurotic fantasist in denial of the past - someone who is attempting to cover a terrible reality with a carefully placed cashmere throw or a fine linen tablecloth.

But, as the guests gather for the novel’s centrepiece dinner, it becomes clear that Cynthia’s narrative is built on the shifting sands of her jealousy, insecurity and general moral shabbiness. First she makes a pass at her niece’s math’s tutor - who quite clearly has a crush on Frances - and then, more crucially, at Walter. Eventually, it is Cynthia who seems deluded and Frances the more stable of the siblings. Berne is incredibly deft in pacing this transition, but Cynthia’s bitter negativity still isn’t any easier to take.

In fact, in a rather heavy-handed analogy, Cynthia’s day job is the re-writing of history, writing fictionalised accounts of the childhoods of famous American women. While her finished books are strictly apple-pie sentimentality, it is the darker secrets her research uncovers that truly fascinate her. Whether claiming that Helen Keller tried to kill her baby sister or that Mark Twain’s youngest daughter attempted to murder their housekeeper, Cynthia’s historical obsessions are ominous. She makes for a disturbing literary companion - and one who lacks the humanity of Marsha.

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