With this book, Seanan McGuire managed to surprise me once again: her main character, Rose Marshall, appeared as a “guest star” in the short story The Ghosts of Bourbon Street, and because of the tone of that story and its loose link with the Incryptid series, I thought this novel would be in the same light, half-serious, half-humorous tone. But I was wrong.
Sparrow Hill Road is a ghost story, one that carries all of the sadness and poignancy of those who dwell in the twilight and long for life: it does so in a touching, often lyrical way that touched me quite deeply with the melancholic beauty of the words I was reading. McGuire outdid herself here, both as a story-teller and as a writer, reaching out of the pages to affect both my imagination and my heart.
Rose Marshall died in a car accident when she was sixteen years old, headed to her prom night: driven off the road by Bobby Cross – who had signed a sort of devil pact, to keep his youth and good looks, in exchange for human sacrifices – Rose discovered that the afterlife was not what she had imagined. For over sixty years she’s been a ghostly hitchhiker, accepting rides from travelers to try and steer them from certain death or, when that’s inevitable, to speed them on their way over the twilight roads.
The story presents some fascinating details about Rose’s existence (strange as the term might appear): she’s incorporeal, as any ghost should be, but the gift of an item of clothing – a jacket, a coat – freely given to her, can lend her substance and make her feel alive again. She is able to consume food, but that has to be given as a gift as well, or it will have no taste. These drawbacks, shared with the reader in half-humorous, half-sad narrative, coexist with a background of longing for life, warmth, human closeness, and define her character in a poignant way that nevertheless does not slide into self-pity or useless regrets. Matter-of-fact acceptance, tinged with both sadness and irony, is what makes Rose the person (or ghost) that she is, one gifted with a clear, strong voice that immediately endeared her to me: McGuire struck a perfect balance here between her teenager appearance and her world-wise (and sometimes world-weary) attitude, giving her a three-dimensional and realistic depth.
Following Rose through her peregrinations we discover that there is no safety even in death: the world of the departed is fraught with dangers just as much as that of the living, and it obeys its own set of rules. What’s interesting – or rather fascinating – is the way both worlds intersect and how many people, living people, are able to perceive the twilight world and interact with it. Along with a wide range of incorporeal entities – some good, some evil, some in-between – we meet route-witches, a gypsy-like community of travelers whose strength comes from the long miles accumulated during their peregrinations, or bean-sidhe like the mysterious Emma, neither alive nor dead but gifted with unusual powers.
Here McGuire has taken many of he traditional ghost myths and woven them into a new and special form of folklore, one that is structured around an organic set of rules and traditions and blends with the living world’s beliefs (both right and wrong ones) in a fascinating way. The strongest theme is that of travel, one of the deep-seated tropes of American narrative, of the road as another character in the story: there are almost-sentient roads here, some good, some bad, and like in the old myth of the unexplored frontier, there are places of safety and rest – the ever-present truck stops and diners.
Often placed on the border between the two planes of existence, these places are both ports for weary travelers of both kinds and nodes where everything is possible, or destinies hang in the balance. One of the descriptions that stuck in my mind for its lyrical quality was indeed related to one such diner and its lighted beacon:
“the rainbow gleam of neon struggling to paint the night in something more than darkness”
The book itself is more a collection of stories, or sketches, tied together by the common thread represented by Rose and weaving from past to present in a seamless and gripping way. There are fear and terror, wonder, longing and sadness and humor as well. There is also a deeply touching goodbye, in the last section, that brought me to tears – and that’s something that does not happen often to me.
This is Seanan McGuire at her best – and getting better, no matter what kind of story she chooses to tell…
My Rating: 8,5/10