Joanna Howard's "Ghosts and Lovers," from her recent collection On The Winding Stair (BOA Editions), runs about twenty pages and carries the label, "a novel in shorts."
I read my first piece of it a couple years ago, in Snow*Vigate. That particular short (which Chad Simpson picked for the inaugural Wigleaf Top 50) starts out like this:
Once I read a fortune in tea leaves of an old woman, the landlady of a crumbling house for wayward types: those who travel incognito and slink through the streets of Barcelona darkly clad and ominous, in leather, wearing eye-patches and sweaty bandanas tied at the throat.
Taken separately, the richnesses here lie in music and tale. But you don't take them separately. I don't. In the sentences and paragraphs of "Ghosts and Lovers," things come together, are whole and alive. As a reader, I feel the wind of the dream, of the dreamer. What Howard sees, in a different story, as the "violent pulse" hidden beneath the cuffs of the master actor—I think I can sense that in Howard's words, and I think it has something to do with the amazing pleasure they're able to give.
The story is told, as you might have gathered, by a fortune teller who travels in a Europe that may or may not be historical (I'll get back to that). A circus "story-teller," within the story, tells the fortune teller, "The future is fluid, but the past is final." It's a great line, but one that seems wrong for the young woman who tells fortunes, wrong in an interesting way. For her, gifted as she is in the arts of divination, the future may be less fluid than the past, which she's forgotten or never knew, and which she cobbles from others' tales as the events of this tale move forward.
Part of what she's given to learn from (by that same circus story-teller): a sailor steals the daughter he had by the wife a weathly man, and "both [perish] at sea." This story recalls the narrator's own, as related in the first short of "Ghosts and Lovers." How her father was a gypsy sailor, her mother "already a bride" when the two of them met in Barcelona. In the narrator's story, though, the mother dies in tragedy—a fall from a train. And the father and daughter live on, of course.
Or do they? There are ghosts of the future and ghosts of the past in Howard's "Ghosts and Lovers." One interesting possibility: there are ghosts of the present, too.
I said I'd get back to the question whether the
setting is a historical one. It may
be. Like many novels, the story owns a
lengthy chronology, one that will move you, as you learn in the first sentence,
from Budapest to Marseille. As you read,
though, these places, peopled as they are with showmen and sailors and such,
might start to seem papered in legend. They can read like collages of trope and
dream, as you'd get in Chagall painting or Dylan song. And that works so incredibly well for this
story, which rarely makes an offer of ground that isn't rescinded in mist.
This is my own version of Scott's biography, and so, might not be in the proper order of importance: Scott Garson is the author of American Gymnopédies (Willows Wept Press, 2010), blogs at Patters of Silver Light and So Forth, and is the editor of Wigleaf.