Reviewed by Ren Zelen
Mother-love is a complex thing. Our relationship with our mother is the most fundamental and determining relationship most of us will ever have, whether we like it or not. It can be a force for good or… not. Its repercussions may be felt throughout life and sometimes, persist even after death.
In reality we don’t always find the ‘unconditional’ devotion and support that is the idealized version of motherhood. If we dig a little deeper into the mother-child dynamic we might discover the most complicated of motivations and desires – as different in each case as the individuals involved. In Susan Hill’s popular novel ‘The Woman in Black’ we saw the vindictiveness that could be unleashed when motherhood was denied. One might also wonder what the possible conclusion of an over-protective mother-child relationship might be? Cliff McNish takes a look at obsessive mother-love in his book ‘Breathe: A Ghost Story’, and explores its more chilling consequences.
After twelve-year-old Jack’s father dies suddenly, his mother Sarah moves them to an old farmhouse in the country. It’s an isolated, crumbling old place, and it has a history. Sarah hopes that by surrounding Jack with unfamiliar things he will be distracted and diverted, and this might help him recover from the shock of losing his beloved father and allow them to console each other and make a fresh start.
But Jack has a special gift. He is a medium with the ability to sense people through the memories imprinted on their possessions and objects. There are more than just memories in Jack’s new home; there are ghosts.
Initially, Jack loves the old house, even when he discovers that the woman who lived there before them died in the very bed in which he sleeps, he is not afraid. As he begins to sense the presence of other spirits he discovers that the house has been haunted for more than a hundred years by the ‘Ghost Mother’, who has forced the spirits of four children to join her. She tells Jack a sad tale of how she lost her own young daughter, Isabella, to Tuberculosis, and how this left her desolate, lonely and inconsolable. All the ghost wants is to be a mother again and to look after a child. Jack has asthma, and this makes him an ideal candidate for her tender care – she will be a mother to him, better than his own could ever be, “I never had a son, you know, though I often wished for one of my own”. She offers him only the deepest devotion and affection, but, if that is the case, why are the ghost children so terrified of her?
We find something disturbing about the ‘Ghost Mother’ from the outset. Her excessive ‘devotion’ to Jack and her sympathy for his physical vulnerability only serve to make us more uncomfortable. She displays unpredictable mood swings and violent passions when questioned – her neediness has something deeply selfish and avaricious about it. When Jack doesn’t respond to her the way she wants him to, the Ghost Mother changes her tune.
Frantic when thwarted, she scrabbles for a way to feed her need and takes her opportunity – she enters and possesses the unsuspecting body of Jack’s real mother, Sarah. An internal battle begins, but the Ghost Mother is strong. Where does she get her strength? The frail ghost children she keeps prisoner are the clue. It is soon evident that she is a menacing character – unbalanced and merciless in the pursuit of her own desires. She is malevolence itself in her treatment of the child ghosts – and ultimately, of the living boy and his mother that she now has in her power.
Cliff McNish’s ghost story is ostensibly one written for young adults, but you can take it from a mature and seasoned reader of the gothic and ghostly, that it has been a long while since I have come across an entity as frightening as McNish’s ‘Ghost Mother’, and longer still since I was genuinely scared for the characters of a book, flipping the pages frantically in order to see what becomes of them. The ‘Ghost Mother’ is a truly ominous creation and we pity those plagued by her rapacious spiritual and emotional vampirism. She is not even the ultimate threat, as the beleaguered ghost children desperately try to avoid her sending them to the dreaded ‘Nightmare Passage’- an evocatively imagined realm of pain, despair and suffering.
‘Breathe’ is a satisfyingly constructed, genuinely disturbing story of a misguided, pathological self-absorption. This is scary in itself, but here it has the added frisson of a psychotic ghostly presence. Believe me, it will give a whole new meaning to the expression, a ‘suffocating’ love.
Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.
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