Tiffany Murray has been a Hay Festival International Writing Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, and her academic posts have included Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of South Wales. Her previous novels Diamond Star Halo and Happy Accidents were shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and the London Book Award. Diamond Star Halo was a Guardian Book of the year. To her resumé she also adds, rather intriguingly, the fact that she “grew up in haunted houses in Scotland, Wales and Hereford”. Hardly surprising then, that her third novel, Sugar Hall, is a masterclass in how to write a ghost story.
The pale ethereal moth on the front is a tantalising taster of what lies between its covers. Murray’s main characters, the Sugar family – the flawed mother, the damaged daughter and the lonely son, Dieter- are from the outset fragile creatures searching for their own personal light. It’s obvious from page one that they will not find it in Sugar Hall, the crumbling mansion which is Dieter’s inheritance. The house smells of marzipan (“on account of the rat poison, not cake, his mother had told him.”). It boasts green silk wallpaper “patterned with gigantic open-winged butterflies and hairy moths”, which sometimes, the boy notes, appear to flutter. And upstairs is a blue room, scattered with abandoned toys, which is always kept locked. When Dieter Sugar says that he’s seen a naked boy wearing a silver collar in the red gardens of the hall, the scene is set for a bizarre “friendship” which threatens to spill the dark secrets of Sugar Hall.
This is a multi-layered narrative set mainly in 1955. Murray flits between dates and viewpoints with such a subtle touch that the reader is never jolted from the main, almost hypnotic, narrative thrust. Each character is intertwined in some way with the personality of the mansion; each footfall and creaking timber has its own story to tell. The spectral boy brings in his wake half-remembered local tales of slavery and cruelty, and a dark account of the hall’s past gradually unfolds. All this is set against a backdrop of Britain rebuilding itself after a devastating war. Themes of nationality and nationhood, wealth and poverty are very much to the forefront. Dieter’s mother is still trying to conceal her German roots, while the Sugar family has obviously built its fortune on the back of the slave trade.
I very much liked the way Murray uses sugar as an ironic motif throughout the book. Sweetness and stickiness become metaphors for unwholesomeness. The teenage daughter, Saskia, and her friends are described repeatedly as ‘lumpy’, as if to be overly- nourished is slightly sinister. Having fled to the vicarage after some ghostly goings-on at the hall, the vicar notes that the teenagers left behind “a scent akin to fearful animals…creamily sweet, like hard toffees warmed by the sun.”
Moths and insects flit restlessly through the pages. The book features some beautiful natural history illustrations. These Lepidopterist’s specimens, however, refuse to be pinned down. As a sort of leitmotif for the ghost boy, the insects swarm whenever he manifests. He appears almost to be made of them. Murray’s sense of place, her lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the characters within that landscape are among the strongest passages in the book.
Sugar Hall is a fascinating read; a spider’s web of a novel, whose delicately woven strands float teasingly just out of reach. Just as you think you’ve pinned down the meaning, the author throws another delicious twist into the mix. I found myself still unpicking the story long after it ended.