"The Migration of Ghosts"

In a dozen stories, Pauline Melville uses symbols to beat the reader senseless.

By Stephanie Zacharek
May 26, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Perhaps it's terribly unfair to judge a book of short stories by one solitary first sentence: "They said he was the greatest white-face mime in Europe." It's only one sentence in one story. And there are some people, I suppose, who like mimes. By the time we've reached the end of this particular story, we learn that the mime in question learned his greatest facial expression -- "the Visage of Horror" -- by watching as his uncle, who'd been among the first Russian soldiers to reach the concentration camp at Belsen, relayed his troubling experiences.

It should be enough to make you feel chastised for never having cared much for mimes -- but is it? Most of the 11 other stories in Pauline Melville's collection "The Migration of Ghosts" end up having a similar effect: By the end of each one, you feel that you should be having some sort of transformation, that there's so much depth and richness layered into the narrative that surely only a shallow person could fail to respond. The author (who won the Whitbread First Novel Award for "The Ventriloquist's Tale") tends to create characters who are displaced, physically or emotionally or both. Their stories take place in London, South America, parts of Africa or combinations thereof: Melville is extremely sensitive to the impact of colliding worlds, whether they're geographical locales or simply the minds of mere mortals.


But Melville's stories are so heavy with symbolism they're beached almost before they begin. There are lots of bad characters wearing figurative black hats: A ruthless South American president revisits the scenes of his rise to power -- from beyond the grave. A heartless oil-company executive gets his comeuppance when his good-hearted, unstable wife, formerly a vivacious fashion model, shows up at an important social engagement with her hair "in dull greasy clumps" and with "thick brown toenails" sprouting from her feet. A mining-company executive is killed by an escaped murderess after covering up a toxic-waste spill. None of these characters are particularly complex, but they have done some very bad things.

When Melville isn't dragged down by symbolism, she's driving it around recklessly like a joy rider in a hot-wired convertible. In "Lucifer's Shank," a woman who's dying becomes obsessed with "The Divine Comedy," and her close friend realizes that she's using the book as a guide to dealing with her death. They read a section together in which Dante and Virgil try to climb the thousand-foot body of Satan. "How would we ever overcome such images?" the friend asks herself in despair. "I shuddered. The giant shaggy thigh of Lucifer with its hanks of frozen goat hair. It was too powerful." Later, in case she hasn't gotten the point across, Melville really steps on the gas, describing her friend's suffering in the hospital: "The pain was in the socket of her right thigh-bone and hip. Exactly where the turning point of Dante's journey took place." The story, of course, has a very sad ending. It could even have been affecting. But it reads more like the literary equivalent of a drive-by assault: How can you feel much of anything after you've been bludgeoned senseless with a hairy shank?

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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