-Reviewed by Sarah Gonnet–
Karen Little writes characters with a surface oddness. Whether they are floridly psychotic or merely displaying a level of everyday delusions and compulsions of creativity; they are all unusual and unique. As the book goes on it becomes easier to absorb the deeper psychological movements that the characters have as well as these qualities. However, the opening of the book is quite impenetrable. We hear from Diana, who, in her own words, builds ‘sentences from [her] own spit’. Yet, as when reading someone like Elizabeth Smart, battling through this series of barely linked, intense images is worth it. Once the rhythm that runs through the piece is detected, it becomes easier to grasp what previously appeared to be chaos. The rewards are images such as this one: ‘I catch rainwater in a pan, pour it into my fish tank, filling it with freedom and light’.
With almost every chapter of bringing to the fore a new character in the first person (only a few characters have more than one chapter – Miguel and Tila seem to be the main characters if you judge this from who has the most chapters) Filled With Ghosts has few consistencies. For this reason it clings to its two main themes – art and creating art/channelling some kind of energy and the violent darkness found in all of the characters. For example Diana starts the book in a state of possible delusion with a description of a violent event and confused, choppy language. From this difficult beginning Diana grows to become an artist with her own studio and practise via further horrific events, including losing her lover (Miguel) to another woman; and witnessing her friend, Tila’s psychotic episodes take on a disturbing edge as Tila becomes obsessed with Diana’s daughter (Heena).
Other stories stand out too. Most noticeably Tila’s. Tila is also a creative person who has psychotic episodes and becomes obsessed with a young girl. Her arc is quite clearly laid out, despite the evident confusion which comes across in her own description of events. Forced to take medication she finds her creativity has dissipated: ‘Mostly I pace the flat my creativity consumed by medication.’ When Tila stops taking her medication the other characters notice and repeatedly comment on it. No-one supports Tila in her wilful battle against the drugs, and they have reason for this- she becomes increasingly symptomatic and dangerous when she is off them. Eventually Tila ends up in a psychiatric hospital.
Picking out character arcs like this isn’t an ideal way of analysing Little’s work, it is just one route through the thick swathes of characters, ideas and events. Instead of each character being an autonomous individual, there is a definite sense of a collective geist in the book. The characters don’t necessarily interact directly, but each story they tell frequently clashes against the previous one and the next one. Most of the characters only get one chapter, so the story progresses across the first person point of view of several characters. This adds another layer of complexity to the story. Second guessing each character as to how reliable a narrator they are, is all part of the experience of reading the book.
Overall Filled With Ghosts is an odd and rewarding read. It comes from a deeply surreal literary tradition and sheds light on original, idiosyncratic characters. It is probably one that needs to be read multiple times before a complete understanding of the mesh of storylines can be gained.