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The carefully anonymous Jim Smith buys a moderate sized farm in the hazily located Brack Country. Jim is aged just under thirty, but has already travelled the world and built and then lost a successful software business. Equal parts snob and innocent, he seems to have little idea what to expect from his new life, and buys farming stock almost on a whim when the previous owner's labourer turns up one morning.
James Buchan's The Gate of Air is an odd beast in that it tells a gripping ghost story which somehow seems to become submerged beneath the everyday tale of country folk. With its remote location, grotesque characters and eerie descriptive passages, it's a clear successor to the Victorian tradition of ghost stories - Dickens, M R James and all the rest of them. Supernatural goings on are so readily accepted at face value, however, that the parallel strand of Jim's induction to Brack Country society somehow becomes the focus of the book.
Despite his apparent complete lack of imagination as the book opens, Jim is haunted by the vision of a woman called Jeanne Thinne - an infamous 60s model whose portrait lies in the hallway of an impoverished, blind nobleman neighbour. Jeanne was married to local businessman Charles Lampard, and is reputed to have killed herself, leaving the ugly stain of suspicion forever printed on John Walker, the Paradise Farm labourer who was the last to see her alive.
Lampard's new wife, the young Marina, is the previous owner of Paradise Farm, and through this vague social link, Jim's destiny gradually becomes entwined with the Lampards.
It's a nice book. Thoroughly old-fashioned in the best possible way, Buchan dwells on prosaic descriptions of the countryside and rural activities, while the various social events that pepper the narrative are more dialogue focused. The Brack Country is a fictional district, but presumably modelled quite closely on a real life location. When even the heir to the throne appears as the Duke of Essex, I started to wonder whether I'd read anything more carefully fictional since Hardy.
As events progress, Jim becomes more interested in the source of the ghostly visions he keeps receiving, oblivious to his increasing social isolation. It's around this point that I suffered my only true problem with the novel - while the archaeological and cartographical feats Jim pulls off to unravel the history of Paradise Farm are plausible to someone with his character's single-mindedness, he does then proceed to learn both Ancient Greek and Latin 'from the Internet' apparently in a matter of a couple of evenings. And learns them well enough to translate ancient inscriptions and texts that he finds dotted around the house and district.
It says a lot that in a book about an immortal ghost taking a shine to an ex-yuppie, a couple of language lessons are the least plausible element. For the most part, the supernatural is described in such a matter of fact fashion that the reader can believe in the strange turn of events whole heartedly.
The characters underpin every aspect of this novel. Jack Bolingbrooke, the blind, gay Lord living out his days in a wine cellar was perhaps my favourite. Also haunted by Jim's spirit for whatever reason, Jack's quiet dignity in the face of a disastrous life is an effective counter to Jim 'learn Ancient Greek in one evening' Smith. Because the book is told entirely from Jim's point of view, our view of the characters is informed almost entirely by his own opinions, and his friendship with Jack was my highlight. With other characters, there's enough grey areas that the reader is forced to question Jim's perception. McCain the farmer, for example, is painted as a typical money-grubbing local tyrant, but he is rarely glimpsed within the action, and all he does is erect some fences on a common, on which the locals no longer graze animals in any case.
Similarly, John Walker is painted throughout as a filthy old drunk, hated by the entire district, but he loves his dog Argos and curls up to sleep with antique statues that he's excavated and restored entirely by hand.
Inevitably in these days of fox-hunting bans and countryside alliances, the hunting question rears its head, and many of the characters are in favour of it. But then many of the characters are landed gentry who have been hunting for centuries, so this is entirely realistic writing. Buchan uses Jim Smith's commentary on their views to leave you with a fresh slant on hunting and country pursuits in general, and the author's own views are thankfully left ambiguous.
In many respects, the elemental spirit that takes a shine to Jim Smith is the least interesting element of the novel, but it is the common thread which connects all the characters, sooner or later. Luckily for the reader, it takes quite a while to get to that stage, allowing you time to appreciate the superb characterisation taking place.
The Gate of Air is a gentle but rewarding novel, best enjoyed on a comfy sofa on a dark evening with a glass of wine by your side. You can pay up to fifteen pounds for the hardback version, but a quick glance at Amazon will show you a much more reasonable five quid or so.
An amended version of this review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk.