If you subscribe to the view that a ghost is a slice of trauma playing on loop, Andi C. Buchanan’s From a Shadow Grave is both haunting and haunted. Haunted, in that it is a novel at least partly about a ghost. Haunting, in that it’s a story that sticks with you after you finish reading it. It keeps you thinking about cycles, about choice and the psychic baggage with which it loads us, about what forms justice can take.
In the novel’s first timeline, we meet protagonist Phyllis Symons as she is abruptly snuffed out: a girl murdered by her lover after she tells him she’s pregnant. Growing up in New Zealand at the start of the Great Depression, Phyllis has been beaten down all her life, called slow because of her struggle with what a modern reader can deduce is undiagnosed dyslexia. Unmarried, she lives with her parents, cleaning houses to bring in a little money and delivering tea to the construction workers down the road. The builders’ compliments are the only real source of positive feedback in Phyllis’s life, which makes it easy for her to fall prey to George Coats and his love-bombing campaign. She pinches pennies for milkshakes and movies, delighted to at last be someone worth paying attention to.
He can make you laugh, make the lingering demons of your childhood melt away. Your childhood was being told you were stupid by your teachers and lazy by your parents, and more than that you seem to have been born with a voice inside you that tells you how bad you are, tells you that you’re stupid or ugly or worthless at every turn. For the first time, here is someone who contradicts that voice. He can’t silence it, but you hear now that you’re pretty, as well as ugly. That you’re charming, not manipulative. That there are lots of different ways to be clever. When you’re with him, it feels like you want to be alive.
When George tells her he loves her, Phyllis is eager to believe him. He’s the first person to treat her as though she’s valuable, and she has been sold the lie told to many women of her time: that a relationship can accelerate her to the escape velocity that launches her out of childhood. She moves in with him, even after finding out that he’s a widower with six children given up to the orphanage, and, even after he hits her, she stays. It’s an understandable choice: he did apologize, and she doesn’t have enough life experience to know how the cycle of abuse works. Besides, she can’t possibly go home to her parents, whom she feels only tolerated her at best. Buchanan’s use of second-person narration is especially effective when Phyllis is rationalizing her relationship with George; we all know how it feels when we’re too ashamed to turn back after we’ve committed to a bad decision.
And then Phyllis finds out she’s pregnant.
You know how the story will go, when you find out, and there’s some comfort in that. You would tell him, in the story, and he would panic and ask if you could have made a mistake, but then he would calm down and say, well, what’s done is done, we’ll get married then.
But this is a story about stories, about cycles, and things don’t go according to Phyllis’s script. George panics and punches her; later, when he apologizes, he lets her know she’ll have to abort. Worse still, abortions are illegal in Depression-era New Zealand. Things escalate quickly: George is arrested for trying to procure the abortion, Phyllis’s family disowns her, and, when George is released to await his trial date, he bludgeons Phyllis with a shovel and buries her alive.
After the initial chapter establishes the basic facts of the case, every timeline starts from George’s decision to murder Phyllis, drawing the line that splits her into “before” and “after.” But somehow, Phyllis persists: first as a ghost and later as a person. Here, the novel begins to branch into new possibilities. Enter Aroha Brooke, a Māori college student who works as a paranormal “fixer,” bargaining with the supernatural, keeping people safe. She releases Phyllis from the site of her murder, where her ghost has been tethered for decades, and they grow closer as they chase the supernatural entity reenacting Phyllis’s murder. Happily ever after, more or less—
Aroha Brooke hurtles back through time to dig Phyllis out of her grave before she suffocates. Aroha visits Phyllis as she convalesces; once again, they grow close as Aroha introduces her modern ideas to Phyllis, always meeting her with the compassion unique to the outraged.
I couldn’t save myself. That’s why, when I found out about you, it made me angry. It made me angry that no-one was there to save you. I know you had a family who loved you, and I’m sure they did what they could, but they couldn’t save you in the end. I was angry that you were just left there, and about what happened next.
Despite the era they’re in, their love blooms, and they make it work for a time; they even raise Phyllis’s daughter Lillian together. But as the future draws nearer, Aroha grows ill, too close to overlapping with her original timeline—
It’s Phyllis’s turn to save herself now. She claws her way out of the ground and goes on to live a full life on her own. She serves as a nurse in a WW2 tent hospital, gets married (to a man this time), raises children. Though the supernatural entity that reenacts her murder confronts her again, it is powerless in a timeline where she survives, so she can live normally, except for all the things she begins to remember.
But sometimes, someone says something that is so real to you and you know that your memories, that what happened to you so many years and miles away, were not some figment of your war-weary imagination. Over time, bits of other stories seep through like distant memories of things you know never happened. A ghost on a hillside. A drum kit in a bar. A girl that does not look like Colleen. A young woman with ink-dark hair.
These different paths of Phyllis’s fate always have some commonalities, and these build out the themes on which the reader can rely. Over and over, Phyllis discovers herself. She finds that she is cleverer than the people around her have led her to think and that her liking for music stretches into real ability if she’s given room to grow, learning a different instrument in every iteration.
And in every timeline, Aroha: raising Phyllis from the dead or going back through time to find her in the dirt or waiting in the future to find Phyllis as an aged survivor. There is no world in which Aroha does not find Phyllis, and this is the comforting backbone of the narrative.
The most refreshing thing about From a Shadow Grave, however, is its lack of a true antagonist. Although George tried to murder Phyllis (and sometimes succeeded), he is incidental to the narrative at best. Even in timelines where Phyllis survives, George remains a walk-on role in her past. She never needs to confront him in order to move on with her life. Whether he repents or whether he is punished is irrelevant.
Further, Buchanan is careful to remind us that carceral systems lack the redemptive quality necessary for true justice. Aroha points out that the “demon” in their first timeline fed on George when he was hanged for Phyllis’s murder. A redemptive system of justice would have deprived the “demon” of the traumatic death it feeds on. Even Phyllis, who once wanted to turn herself into something “unholy and vengeful, screaming around the city striking fear, wreaking retribution on every man like George” faces down the “demon” by mimicking his crime with compassion, keeping the creature on a tether so that it has “the opportunity to change.”
My only dissatisfaction with the story is in its pacing. The decades that flash by off-screen, particularly in timelines where Phyllis survives, feel like missed opportunities to examine the long-term effects of her trauma as she navigates the world. However, the moments we do spend with Phyllis are evocative and vividly drawn, resonant with the weight of possibility and all the myriad ways a narrative can be resolved. Buchanan’s work is at its most poignant when they commit to their power to rewrite and their characters’ power to keep moving forward.