Ron Butlin’s latest novel,Ghost Moon, takes its title from the phenomenon of the daytime moon, first observed by central character Maggie as she pushes her son, Tom, in his pram. As a single mother in post-war Scotland, the moon seems as remote and fragile as her hopes for the future. Finding herself unexpectedly pregnant, Maggie has fallen foul of the strict social mores of the day, and must fight to keep her baby and forge a life for both of them.
Butlin has added to the poignancy and drama of Maggie’s story by beginning at the end: we first meet Maggie when she is ninety years old and living with dementia. As if telling the story to herself, her recollections of her early life is framed by her modern-day predicament: life in a nursing home and duty visits from a son who struggles to make sense of her confused ramblings. Maggie’s early life does, in parts, prove stronger than Maggie in the present-day, although sporadic use of the imperative second person is compelling and serves to crank up the tension. The present is jumbled and confused, but the past is clear and linear, as it often is for someone with dementia. However, the focus on Maggie, both past and present, has the unfortunate effect of denying the character of Tom space to develop, with the result that he is rather two-dimensional. However, the fact that the adult Tom isn’t a hugely sympathetic character merely emphasises the harrowing difficulties faced by many older people (and also their relatives) in their final days.
This novel feels refreshingly current, coming as it does in the wake of such stories as Philomena, the film which highlights just how tough life was for unmarried mothers in a society which believed in the notion of the ‘fallen woman.’ Ghost Moon also provides commentary on how we, as a modern, caring society, treat our oldest members; it allows us to identify the elderly, vulnerable Maggie with the young mother she once was, something which, sadly, is overlooked in many similar situations.
This is Butlin’s fourth novel and something of a personal journey for the acclaimed former Edinburgh Makar and dramatist. We learned more about the inspiration for this during his recent visit to the Dundee Literary Festival. Along with Sue Peebles, whose novel Snake Road also deals with the issue of dementia, the author read excerpts from Ghost Moon. He explained that the story of Maggie was, in fact, that of his mother, who had faced the same threat of social exclusion in refusing to give up her son for adoption. His mother, Butlin remarked, learned shame from the reactions to her and her situation from society, and he felt he had to write her story for all those women who have undergone similar trials. There is healing in bringing the issue into the public gaze; creativity, for Butlin, provides a way of working through these traumas. Imagination is a form of escape.
At Butlin’s and Peebles’ reading, the conversation (perhaps inevitably, given the subject) turned to endings. Both authors discussed their resistance to providing a ‘neat’ ending, given, especially, that life rarely offers such a thing. However, Ghost Moon, it must be said, does have an appropriate and satisfying ending. Maggie, recalling her story in the last hours of her life, cannot retain the secrets she has kept hidden all her life, and the two narratives seamlessly collide in a final moment of clarity.