Sissy and Ava Hush grew up at 333 Forest Rd.; in fact, Sissy has never left; even after she married, she and her husband, Harry Wells, lived there and cared for her parents.
It’s a grand old house, or it should be, but it’s rundown, its décor mired in decades past, outdated furnishings including a “baby’s room” where no baby has rested since the 1970s, and small repairs blooming into larger problems because there’s no money to fix them. “Everywhere her glance fell, there was work to be done,” Sissy observes as she steps into the back garden, “the rotting back wall that the sun didn’t reach, the crumbling concrete, the loose shingles, and the splintered window pane that told the story of a scarlet finch who’d struck it and died from a broken neck.”
Also, it’s haunted.
“Gradually, she opened her eyes and squinted up to the window of the baby’s room to confirm that there was, indeed, a face in the pane, a young woman in a white dress, who watched her.”
This spectre doesn’t bother Sissy, who has named the girl Clair, and is careful to step around her when Clair sits on the stairs.
But that’s not the only shadow cast over the Hush house.
At the novel’s opening, Sissy is 36, and working at as undemanding, underpaid sales assistant in an antique store on Duckworth Street. Harry has left her (“She also recalled the exact moment when he last kissed her. ‘I tried,’ he had said with a shrug when she’d flinched”), and in consequence of that she has lost her desire to play the piano, which had been a solace.
Both her parents are dead, more recently her father, and now her older sister, Ava, a TV producer based in Toronto, is flying back to help Sissy “deal with all this.”
By which Ava means sell the house.
“Sure, it’s big and glorious in its own way. In spite of everything that happened here, we had some fun times.”
There’s a lot compacted into “everything that happened here”; so much that it takes the full arc of the narrative for the sisters to unpack.
In the meantime, there are the usual day-to-day chores and pleasures.
Ava quickly talks her reclusive sister into an evening at Finnegan’s Pub, where her friend Britney’s cousin is playing with the Dream Dogs.
Sissy’s initial reluctance is quickly justified when the bar owner turns out to be Bobby Boise, a tormentor from her childhood (“you got a skank for a sister”). But the sight of Britney’s cousin, Angus, a “tall, lean fellow in a red-and-black flannel plaid shirt singing ‘Molly Malone’ is a wistful brogue,” helps that uneasiness recede.
Sissy loves music, admires musicians, and is it possible Angus is genuinely interested in her? No way, when he could have his pick of admiring young women. As Ava teases Angus about having “a girl in very port,” Sissy makes an early exit, then lies sleepless until her sister returns at 5 a.m.
The dynamics between the two sisters is complex. On the surface, Ava is the more glamourous, the more successful, the more everything. But hidden vulnerable, and protective, layers in each woman are continuously exposed. They are linked together by affection, conflict, blood, and a shared history, though that includes some gaps Ava doesn’t know and Sissy can’t remember.
This trouble is manifested in the house.
“It was getting harder to deny the ghosts were real, but (Sissy) feared Ava’s typical overreaction. If Sissy gave her permission, Ava would have started calling in ‘experts’ to help, especially (their uncle) Cotton Hush, who was the last person Sissy wanted to see right now. Ava would want a séance, with all the creepy bells and whistles for ambiance. For her part, Sissy was okay with spirits as long as they stayed in their own space and didn’t bother her.”
These spectral goings-on unfold against a detailed setting of a contemporary St. John’s, characters breakfasting at downtown diners and shopping at Fred’s Records.
But even as the sisters steer through quotidian issues of real estate and relationships, the house is filling with things that go bump, or sing “Frère Jacques,” in the night:
“‘This is too strange, Sissy. I need to know what that sound was.’
“‘Sometimes it’s better not to know.’
“‘But sometimes it’s better to face your fears.’ Ava placed a hand on Sissy’s shoulder. “‘Don’t you think it’s time we did that?’
“With only the slightest hesitation, Sissy nodded. ‘Okay.’
“They clasped hands, turned together towards the closet, and listened.”
Novelist Gerard Collins (“Finton Moon”) conveys the tensions, emotions, and complications through to the last line.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.