Reading guide for The Ghost’s Child

by Sonya Hartnett

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate 2008

Written by Mats Berggren 

About the author

Australian author Sonya Hartnett made her publishing debut at the age of just fifteen with a novel that she had written two years earlier. The painfully shy girl who had always felt she was weird became, in her own words, a loud-mouthed child who appeared on TV.

She soon realised that her debut book was not as great as she thought and she believes she has devoted large parts of her life to trying to write books that prove she is better than the reputation of her first book would suggest – books that prove she can be a real author. To say she has succeeded would be an understatement. Hartnett is one of the authors currently charting a new course for young adult fiction in terms of both form and content, while constantly pushing the boundaries of her own authorship. No two works are alike. Themes and motifs recur in her writing, but each work has a different focus.

She admits that many of her books follow a Gothic tradition, which most people would associate with horror fiction. However, her Gothic sensibilities reference the American South and authors such as William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, where haunted houses and graveyards are replaced with small towns and decrepit farmsteads, and counts and damsels in distress become isolated, uneducated rural folk.

The idea is that readers should switch off their impulse to be judgemental in order to explore layers of existence that would otherwise be overlooked. She wants to shock her readers, make them uncomfortable, confront the most powerful aspects of life – evil, life, love, death.

A common feature of the Gothic novel is that the past casts its shadow over the present – via family secrets and curses; others include the eerily alluring anti-heroes and the fragile women, objects of man’s desire. Hartnett herself feels that she has created few interesting female characters.

The author sees madness as a rich literary seam to be mined. Portraying a person as in some way mad frees the writer, expanding the boundaries of credible behaviour. But it must not be taken too far – these people have to feel familiar, like neighbours. That is what makes them threatening. Hartnett repeatedly depicts situations of power and dependence in small, close-knit groups, such as a family or friends.

Animals and nature provide some sort of counterpoint in the books. Many of the characters have strong bonds with a pet, although the relationship with the natural world is more complicated – it can be both liberating and lethal. Sonya Hartnett is very precise in her descriptions, detailing all the names of the flora and fauna. She seeks to show how we are part of nature and how important that is. The most prominent message of all for her is that all living things should be respected and treated well.

Another theme is the lost child – the risk that children might disappear in the desert is very real in Australia. But children can be lost in other ways too. There is a clear message that defenceless creatures – children or animals – should not be made to suffer, abandoned, frightened or badly treated. And yet they are – in the books and in reality. Beneath the surface there is a throbbing anger at the state of the world.

The subject matter and the complexity of the novels bring many of them close to adult fiction, blurring the distinction. In Hartnett’s view, she tries to offer her young audience material that can expand their consciousness. “Would a portion of the audience actually prefer me to write of boy meeting girl, boy getting girl, boy losing girl? If so, then that portion of my audience is not my audience.”

About the book

The Ghost’s Child (2007) differs from most of Sonya Hartnett’s other books for young adults in that it is not nearly as dark. It involves grief and pain, but ultimately the story resolves itself into a life-affirming reconciliation.

The book might be said to create a genre all of its own. It can be described as a poetic saga with touches of everything from concrete realism to dream-like sequences that spill over into pure fantasy, with the main character talking to fish and to the west wind.

The novel opens with the lead character, a 75 year-old woman, receiving an unexpected visit from a mysterious boy. He gets her to talk about her life – particularly the dramatic love story in her youth that became a defining moment for her. It left deep scars, but as she now looks back, she can see that her life has still been rich and meaningful, with experiences of both loss and joy.

By choosing to depict the experiences of youth as seen through the eyes of an old person, Sonya Hartnett opens the way for a type of wisdom that is unusual in young adult fiction.

Things to think about after reading The Ghost’s Child

In what time is the story set?

Who is the boy?

How do you interpret the description of the remote island and the idea of eternal peace?

What do you think the book says about how you should live your life?

Beauty is an important subject in the book. What conclusions can we draw from what is said?

The presentation of Sonya Hartnett talks about how important animals and the natural world are to her. What do you think their roles are in the book?

Does this book contain any other of the themes that are considered typical of the author’s work?

What picture does she paint of the upper classes?

The book’s central theme is love. It is approached from many different angles, for example through the depiction of Maddy and Feather’s relationship, through her relations with other people, and through various statements and questions about how love works. What do you think the book says about love?

Maddy and Feather love each other, but their life together becomes a prison. Does the book say anything more generally about why certain people are drawn to each other – and why it can sometimes be hard for them to live together?

This Reading Guide was written by Mats Berggren, member of the jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.