Book Review | Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Nina is in her early thirties, a successful food writer living in London. She’s got just one single friend left, Lola, and everyone else is married and starting families. She caves to pressure and downloads a dating app called Linx. The line-up of potential mates is uninspiring to say the least – as Nina remarks dryly, ‘Every man looked exactly the same: ‘Tom, 24, atheist, London, likes: reading, sleeping, eating travel’ – it reminded me of the Biology GCSE syllabus and being taught what living organisms need: ‘movement, respiration, reproduction, nutrition, excretion.’

But it’s not too long before she meets the charming and beguiling Max, an accountant (a job he hates) with a love of the outdoors and a yearning to see the world (yawn?). They hit it off, and things are going swimmingly. Until – not a spoiler – he vanishes.

‘Max wanted to be tortured, he wanted to yearn and chase and dream. He wanted to exist in a liminal state, like everything was just about to begin.’

So this is a story about being ghosted in the modern, dating sense, the term that appeared to give a name to that depressing phenomenon of potential or current dates disappearing off the face of the earth with no explanation. But it’s not just about that: the ghosts here are also the slowly vanishing friendships, once held dear but splintered by a move to the suburbs, screaming toddlers and a picture-perfect Instagram life. Nina struggles to connect with her best friend who’s determined to act like someone who has it all, while similarly seeing Nina’s life choices as a direct attack on her own.

The ghosts are also those of the past, made even more astute by the fact that Nina’s father is suffering from Dementia. As she watches him slowly grow more distanced from the person he was, she grapples with the feelings of responsibility, loss and sadness, amidst a fracturing relationship with her mum. There are tender and insightful layers of nostalgia as Nina returns to the place she grew up, the air thick with memory.

‘When I was in Pinner, I could be seventeen again, just for a day. I could pretend that my world was myopic and my choices meaningless and the possibilities that were ahead of me were wide open and boundless.’

‘They arrive in their new navy car. It’s already been fitted with a seat for the baby. One day that baby will sit on a bench, wondering if that navy car is scrap metal somewhere, wishing it could come collect them.’

Dolly Alderton’s debut novel is heartfelt, relatable and true. It’s also funny in that witty and astute way that anyone who has read Dolly’s autobiography, Everything I Know About Love, or listened to The High Low podcast will know well.

‘You just have to trust me when I say: you shall not pass.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You shall not pass,’ she repeated sagely, giving me a gentle smile.
‘Pass where?’
‘It’s a phrase my mum always used to say to me when I was sad. It means: this will end at some point, then you’ll be happy again.’
‘This too shall pass.’
‘Yes, exactly, it will.’
‘No, that’s what you’re meant to say.’
‘Is it? Why do I know the proverb “you shall not pass”?’
‘It’s not a proverb, it’s what Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings.’

It’s a totally absorbing read, one that will particularly resonate with anyone in their twenties or thirties going through similar transitions. But it’s also lovely in its universality and the themes of steadfast friendship, courage, change and hope.

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With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. Ghosts will be published in October 2020. 

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