The Library

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Writer Clara Strunck reviews Dolly Alderton’s debut novel, Ghosts

09.10.2020

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I’d lend you my copy of Ghosts, but you might not want it. Nearly every page has been turned down, scribbled on or highlighted. That’s how good this book is. Buy your own copy, as I’m prepared to bet you’ll be marking it up for future reference in exactly the same way.

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This is Dolly Alderton’s first novel, a follow-up to her phenomenally successful memoir Everything I Know About Love, which became a top-five Sunday Times bestseller in its first week of publication in 2018 and won a National Book Award later that year.

Ghosts is the story of 32 year-old Nina Dean, who works as a food writer (a reference to one of Alderton’s favourite books, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn). When Nina breaks up with her long-term boyfriend, she downloads a dating app and meets Max: a seemingly perfect, rugged romantic hero with “very, very long legs” and a face which “looked like it belonged to a Viking warrior.”

Their courtship plays out against a backdrop of Nina’s other, non-romantic relationships - with her drifting childhood friends, her argumentative neighbour and her beloved father, who is slowly fading away into dementia.

If you liked Everything I Know About Love, there is much of the same pithily funny, excruciatingly truthful examination here of modern life: Weddings, hen parties and bad dates are all covered with cringingly brilliant accuracy. Alderton’s writing, so lyrical it’s almost poetic, transforms the mundane realities of everyday life into something familiar, yet wonderfully special.

Take Nina’s bitingly accurate description of the dating app she uses, a digital rolodex of people that’s so easy to flick through, “2-D humans like pages of a catalogue.” Or the way she describes that early stage of a new relationship, “when everything domestic could be erotic… because it took you one step further into their high-walled palace of privacy, where you hoped only you were allowed to roam.” Chapter Eight, written entirely in text message form, captures the millennial notion of ‘ghosting’ with painful accuracy.

Ghosts isn’t, however, as cheerful and optimistic as Everything I Know About Love; Alderton herself has described it as “quite sad and realistic about the disappointments and realities of life.” Illness and a nostalgia for childhood tint the whole book with sadness. When Nina returns to the garden square outside her childhood home, for example, she sits on a bench and remembers her plimsolls, her family’s basement flat, her dad’s blue Nissan Micra. “I would make a strong case for the argument that every adult on this earth is sitting on a bench waiting for their parents to pick them up, whether they know it or not. I think we wait until the day we die.”

At times, Ghosts makes for uncomfortable reading, as it explores the themes of loss and abandonment so deeply. Conversely, there are plenty of laughs, and the way the book tackles the push and pull of relationships in your late twenties and early thirties feels deeply, reassuringly recognisable.

Alderton is an exemplary writer, she gets to the realness of growing up and its occasional disappointments, of finding oneself an adult with no manual and no guarantees. It is real to its core. You can pre-order your copy (out 15th Oct), here.

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