There is a yesteryear quality to much of Gregory Norminton’s writing, at least in these stories, several of which look backward in style to classics of the genre.
The opening story (“The Poison Tree”) of a friendship forged in the jungles of Malaya slowly turning to bitterness in English suburbia, starts with a pre-amble:
This is a story my neighbours told me. I cannot say how much of it is true, for I never knew the participants. I have, however, inhaled fine particles of skin and hair that used to belong to one of them: my predecessor in this house, a man with the perfectly forgettable name of Roger Wilson. It is his part in this story – the story of a friendship – that I feel compelled to set down, as though his ghost were hovering above my shoulder. Yet as well as being a story of friendship, this is a story of hate: hate that grows from indebtedness and becomes a fuel for living.
This first-person narrator never re-appears, a sort of device rare now, but not uncommon in days gone by. It did not take me long to find an example from Turgenev. These echos of writing past—one assumes they are deliberate—pervade this and other stories, from vocabulary (“ruminants”, “smallholding”) and English countryside-derived similes
he was alone when Morag Finnie landed, like a nest-thrown fledgling, on his bench
to rhythm …
A war of attrition followed, with Dorothy confined to her sweltering bedroom and Ben baying her name across the cypress hedge.
and a precision of syntax (“Roger never ceased to observe”) reminiscent of carefully preserved and meticulously polished brown shoes. This is however adaptation rather than adoption: one entire story is a tongue-in-cheek, pursed-lips epistolary fight over garden shrubs, yet one updated to the world of electronic communications; the Telegraph’s e-mail address figures prominently.
The title story “The Ghost Who Bled” and cover art derived from Japan’s “rising sun” flag might lead one to believe that this is an Asian collection, whereas in fact only about a quarter of the stories have an Asian connection. Of these, perhaps the best is “Zero + 30” which tells of a Cambodian woman’s return to the place of her imprisonment and torture by the Khmer Rouge, with her well-meaning but somewhat uncomprehending American husband in tow. This story, by turns hard and poignant, is a well-observed exploration of an intercultural relationship whose irreconcilability is due not so much to difference of culture as experience, differences papered over only part by love. This and the lead story are, as studies of the some of the more baleful aspects of the expat experience, worth the price of the collection.
The title story, set in the aftermath of the end of the Second World War in Japan, is a cutting Roald Dahl-like take on an Asian ghost story. Dahl seems to have influenced several of the stories, both in the twists in the tales as well their morbidity. (Those in their traditional English settings work a bit better for me than the one transposed to 1940s Japan.)
A further just barely Asia-related story is “Writer’s Retreat”, in which a Russian-language poet from the fictional Islamic Caucasian state of Akhmetistan fends off government blandishments and threats to denounce Russian aggression.
This eclectic collection contains a story on time travel, a pair on environmentalism and two pieces of historical fiction. One of these features Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe; the other is of a clairvoyant monk and a late Byzantine Emperor and takes the form of a parable—a story again that looks back in form as well as content.
The Ghost Who Bled is, as a result, something of a one-story-at-a-time collection whose parts are perhaps be best savoured individually.