There was a boy; there was a small boy and the boy appeared out of thin air, and he, Dieter Sugar, was sure this boy was something different, he was almost certain this boy wasn’t like any other boy he’d seen before.
Sugar Hall begins with young Dieter running, petrified, from the long shed on the edge of the gardens to the reception room in the stately house which is his inheritance. He’s seen the boy mentioned above, a boy who is definitely no longer alive.
The Sugars – Dieter, his older sister Saskia and their mother Lilia – have moved to Sugar Hall from London following the death of Peter, Lilia’s husband and Dieter’s father. Dieter misses his friends, the Wee-Hoo Gang, who played in the wasteland on the edge of the Thames. It’s his sadness about being away from London that makes him declare:
‘A boy was out there,’ he whispered, ‘he did wear a silver collar and you’ll see, I’m going to make him my friend.’
As Dieter makes friends with the ghost boy, completely naïve as to the consequences this will bring, Lilia’s also making friends of her own:
Juniper Bledsoe, neighbour, arrives on horseback, wearing a wax jacket, carrying a joint of beef and being a thoroughly English countrywoman. She’s practical and open.
And John Phelps whose mother used to be a servant at the hall:
John visited because there were things that were difficult for Ma, and although Dieter knew John couldn’t help with every difficult thing, like sadness, he could hit the taps that dribbled green with a spanner; he could climb up onto the roof as Ma worried below, and he could bang until the gush of water stopped. Ma said if it wasn’t for John Phelps they might be dead.
It’s clear that although they’ve never been well off – Peter was estranged from his father due to his marriage to Lilia – there’s been an attempt to raise the children to aspire to something superior, they’ve been given elocution lessons, for example. It’s not until they take over the hall that their financial status becomes crippling and standards begin to slide.
The story’s told in a third person subjective narration moving mostly between the points of view of Dieter and Lilia. This allows us to witness the boy ghost from both Dieter’s perspective, who can see the boy and attempts to help him to his own detriment, and Lilia’s terrifying position as a mother whose son is suddenly and inexplicably ill.
Murray intersperses the narration with a variety of other texts. These take many forms, including newspaper articles, letters, lists and pictures, all of which link to key events in the story.
Sugar Hall, despite its early introduction of the ghost, is a slow burner. Murray allows the reader to become acquainted with the hall, the locals and have a glimpse of the Sugar ancestors and their collections – butterflies, moths, masks and animal heads – in order to build a terrifying atmosphere which hurtles towards it’s grim conclusions. The novel explores how the sins of the ancestors are passed down the generations who ultimately pay for the inhumane crimes committed. Not only is it a very good ghost story, it’s also a reminder of atrocities whose aftermath still resonate today.
Thanks to Seren for the review copy.