Sep 2, 2009

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

James and his family have recently moved to an old cottage in the village of Ledsham, Oxfordshire. There are strange sounds at night sometimes, but that’s only to be expected with old houses, right? What is perhaps not to be expected is the fact that James keeps finding notes signed by one Thos. Kempe Esq. Sorcerer, who seems to consider him his apprentice.

At first, James thinks that someone is pulling his leg – but who could it be? And things get complicated when his parents reach the same conclusion he did: someone is playing a trick, and that someone can only be James. Before he gets into further trouble, James has to find a way to pacify the ghost of Thomas Kempe.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was quite different from what I’d imagined: first of all, it’s funny! And not funny in a trying-too-hard-to-be-scary-and-failing-miserably sort of way, but actually genuinely funny. Take this bit, from right after James finds another one of Thomas Kempes’ notes:
The writing was spidery, as though the pen had slid about. At the bottom of the page, there was a further line, which said petulantly, ‘I lyke not this quill’.
I suppose it works better in context, but hopefully it will give you an idea of what kind of humour to expect. The tone shifts as the book progresses, however, and things become more serious and even a little sad. Thomas Kempe is never really scary, but that’s okay because he’s never supposed to be. What he is is someone who can't make sense of the modern world, and in the end he's very easy to sympathize with.

Another thing I liked were the characters: James himself, his amiable friend Simon, and especially their elderly neighbour Mrs Verity. At first James dismissed her as a busybody, but I really liked the fact that as the book progresses and James interacts with her more, he realizes that she’s, well, human.

I wish the same had happened with James' little sister Helen. There are a few scenes in which he considers sharing the secret of Thomas Kempe with her, but in the end he doesn’t because she is nothing but “a mere girl”. The reason why I won’t go on about this for two or three paragraphs is because the book is intelligently written enough that we get to see beyond James’ dismissal of his sister, and it’s clear that he’s very much underestimating her. Still, a scene in which he was forced to swallow his words would have been so satisfying.

My one problem with this book was that it has a bit of a “sceptics are so dim and close-minded, hahaha; they think they know everything but know nothing” vibe to it, which really put me off. It’s subtle enough that it didn’t ruin the book for me, but I’d have been happier without it. We don’t think we know everything, you know. And some of us rather enjoy ghost stories. This is where I link to this awesome video which the equally awesome Renay introduced me to.

I saved the thing I liked the most for last: the sense of history, of time passing, of how much changes and how much stays the same. Thomas Kempe is not the only character from the past, but I can’t say who the others are because it’s a bit spoiler-y. I will say that it was wonderfully, done, though: the idea that people are people regardless of when they lived or how old they are is very much central to this story, as is the sense of being connected to the past.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe may not be my new favourite ghost story, nor my favourite Carnegie Medal winner, but it was a very satisfying read. Like I said, it doesn’t even try to be scary, but the slightly spooky and very Autumn-y atmosphere still makes it perfect for this time of year.

Bits I liked:
In the children’s section every book had the appearance of having been well and truly read, or even, in the case of books for very young children, partially eaten. It was a satisfactory place: familiar, yet inexhaustibly surprising, homely but exotic in its offerings. To plunge into its gloomy entrance was like opening a grocery box and finding it full of Christmas presents.
(Is this description of the Ledsham public library wonderful or what?)
‘You think back. And often it seems more real than now. I mean, here I am, like this, but in my mind it’s like I was different. Young, you see. You never really believe you’re not any more.’ She sighed, and looked at James, and James looked back and could find nothing to say that seemed at all useful, so he just nodded. He wondered if Mrs Verity was one of the smocked and booted girls in the photographs.

Time reached away behind and ahead: back to the crusading knight, and Thomas Kempe, and Aunt Fanny, and Arnold; forward to other people who would leave their names in this place, look with different eyes on the same streets, rooftops, trees. And somewhere in the middle there was James, walking home from tea, his head full of confused but agreeable thoughts, hungry, and a little tired, but content.
Other Opinions:
Bart's Bookshelf


Melanie said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I like her focus on history and memory in most of her work; and I find her children's books quite atmospheric. And how could I resist such a great description of the Ledsham library? :)

Andreea said...

Thanks for your honest review! I'm interested in this book and I will add it to my reading list!

DesLily said...

*groaning here* this sounds like one for the wish list.. love the cover too *that's another bad thing! liking the cover! argh!*

Hazra said...

The cover has an Addam's Family-ish feel to it. You review is making me itch to read it.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love the cover, and I love the word "spoiler-y"!!!

ds said...

Is this the same Penelope Lively who wrote Moon Tiger? Sounds really interesting & fun--and different, for her. Thanks.

Vivienne said...

The cover makes it look more sinister than it sounds. I like the paragraph about the appearance of the library books. Sounds a bit like some of mine.

Debi said...

That video is so freakin' awesome!!!! I can't wait to show it to Rich, too!

Sandy Nawrot said...

A little humor with a spooky story can be alot of fun. Listening to HP on audio here lately has made me appreciate the dry wit you can get with these types of stories. I'm also very much liking your terminology of "spoiler-y" and "Autumn-y"!

Staci said...

I have to read this one. Sounds like a book I need to add to my middle school shelves!!

bermudaonion said...

A ghost story that's funny sounds great! This would be fun to read in October.

Nymeth said...

Melanie: The atmosphere really was wonderful :) And I knew that passage would be appreciated :D

Andreea, I'm glad to hear it!

Deslily: Sorry! :P

Hazra: It does! I hope you enjoy it :)

rhapsodyinbooks: I guess I was in a make-up-words sort of mood today :P

ds: Yes, the very same one! I wonder if she's the only author to be nominated both for the Booker and the Carnegie ;) I'm really looking forward to reading her adult fiction.

Vivienne: I think it does, yes. Then again, I've been told I have a high tolerance level when it comes to scariness, so it's possible that others will find it spookier than I did!

Debi: I had a feeling you'd like the video :D

Sandy: HP combines spookiness and humour better than any other series! Sigh, I want to re-read them all.

Staci: Yes, it's perfect for that age group :)

bermudaonion: I kind of wish I'd saved it for October, but it was also a perfect opener for RIP.

Darla D said...

Funny ghost story? Say no more. Thanks! :-)

Bart's Bookshelf said...

This one sounds great! Definitely going on the wishlist. :)

Marie said...

Sounds cute & fun! I like the quote you chose!

Zibilee said...

This looks lie a really fun and lighthearted read. I will have to remember it the next time I need something semi-spooky with traces of humor. Great review, and I'm glad you had such a good time with this book.

Lynda said...

I used to recommend this book to pupils when I taught English ;0)

naida said...

This sounds really good.
Nice quotes!

Booklogged said...

I just ordered this on your recommendation. Learned about the book depository a few days ago and when I followed your link & it took me there. I like what I see there, so I bought this book. Hope it gives you a bit of a kick back. And I'll be excited to get a package from England. Hey, I just realized I can order books with English covers now. I usually like them so much better than U.S. covers. I'm going back to check for Still Life by Louise Penny. Thanks, Nymeth.

J.T. Oldfield said...

I love it when a book is unexpectedly funny!

Undine said...

I'm not big on ghost stories, but your comments on the humor in this one and that gorgeous description of the library are convincing me to give this one a chance!

kiirstin said...

"the book is intelligently written enough that we get to see beyond James’ dismissal of his sister, and it’s clear that he’s very much underestimating her."

This bit reminded me of the trouble I had with Larklight, despite liking the rest of it very much; the text took the sister to be every bit as her brother saw her, and I found that really frustrating. But I might be able to read this without being so annoyed, as long as the reader is given to understand that it's James' point of view and not the truth.

I've read a lot of books for boys in the middle grades, and many of them seem to have this whole "girls suck" thing going, while the others tend to have a "girls suck, but wait..." Why do girls have to suck in boy's lit? Is it because the boys prefer to read that? I tend to think it's actually pretty condescending.

Nymeth said...

Darla: It's a subtle sort of humour, but it's most definitely there :D

Bart: I hope you enjoy it! Are you trying to read all the Carnegie winners too? Not that I'm setting up a project to do just that or anything :o

Marie, I'm glad you liked it :) It starts as cute and fun, but the tone shifts quite a bit, which was interesting!

Zibilee: As I was telling Marie, in the end it wasn't quite as lighthearted as it seemed at first! But that only made it better :)

Lynda, a good choice!

Naida, it is :)

Booklogged: Thank you so much for using my affiliates link! I get 5% whenever people use it. It hasn't made me much at all so far, but every bit helps, and I really appreciate you using it :) And yes, being able to get books from the UK with free shipping is a wonderful thing!

J.T. Oldfield: Me too :D

Undine: The ones that are meant to be scary don't always work for me, but I like the quieter, more introspective sort. I hope you do give it a chance :)

Kiirstin: I know... I get that vibe from several books, and it's really frustrating :/ Not only it's condescending, but if it's unexamined it can perpetuate ideas that kids should be learning to question. In this case, there were several scenes that made it obvious that Helen was actually pretty smart, and that James was making things harder for himself by not asking for her help. Still, a scene in which this had been acknowledged in a more obvious way would have made me very happy.

Melody said...

Ah...I've this book in my pile. I remember I got it via BookMooch! ;) I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)

blacklin said...

This book sounds interesting. Great review! I might give it a shot.

Court said...

Oooh, this sound wonderful! Adding it to the TBR list immediately! :)

Iliana said...

This sounds like such a fun read and perfect for the R.I.P. challenge. I didn't realize Penelope Lively wrote for children too though! That's a nice surprise.

Alice Teh said...

I think this is the first time I'm coming across this author. Sounds like a good book!

Sangeeta said...

The book 'The Ghost Of Thomas Kempe 'is lovely book and I have just started reading it.

Anonymous said...

I love this book! I have just started reading this book and I really like it. I can't believe it is about ghosts because I don't really like ghost books but I do now! Thanks Penelope lively.