“Ghost Country” by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky, Sara. Ghost Country (1998)  
Delacorte, 386 pages, $24.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0 385 29933 8

I was very glad when Sara Paretsky finally proved wrong my fear (after reading Windy City Blues) that she might never publish again with the appearance of Ghost Country. Then I read the novel.  

Ghost Country starts off promisingly enough, as a story about homelessness in the city (Chicago) and the conflict between homeless people and the corporation that owns the hotel outside of which the homeless want to congregate.  The homeless, the dispossessed, the conflict between the haves and the have-nots—all of this is familiar ground to Paretsky in her V.I. Warshawski novels.

But before long Ghost Country veers away from social realism—far, far away. Two of the major characters are Harriet Stonds and her half-sister, Mara Stonds. Both orphans, the girls have been raised by their grandfather, the powerful and egotistical Dr. Abraham Stonds. Harriet, a successful lawyer, has always been the perfect child, doing exactly as she was told and expected to do; she has blond hair and white skin. Her sister Mara, in contrast, has dark, unruly hair, dark skin, and a hot temper; she’s rebellious and a constant source of trouble to her grandfather. 

As the book continues the distinction between the two women—one light, the other dark—becomes nearly allegorical although inverted, with Harriet as the Ice Maiden and Mara as a life force. Further, their grandfather, Dr. Stonds, emerges as the traditional allegorical picture of evil, while his helpmate, the housekeeper Mrs. Ephers, comes to resemble Mrs. Danvers, the devoted yet demented housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Then Paretsky introduces a new character, Starr: “The woman was a horrible specimen. Her hair was piled in a massive pompadour that looked like snakes, but Harriet was more revolted by her breasts. The newcomer was naked from the waist up, and her breasts looked so enormous, Harriet had the fantasy that they were reaching across the sidewalk to suffocate her” (p. 186). And here’s the reaction of Hector Tammuz, an emergency room doctor and sympathetic character, when he sees Starr:

Naked from the waist up until one of the orderlies found an old T shirt for her. Her breasts were large and golden, like ripe gourds, the nipples glowing cherries. Even after Millie Regier, the psychiatric charge nurse, managed to cover them—a struggle, since the woman’s hair was piled high with heavily waxed curls that looked like horns; she was tall, too, so that Millie, panting and heaving, maneuvering long bronze arms into sleeves, stretching to pull over curls and braids, the woman not resisting, but not helping, staring around at the attendants, the machinery, Tammuz himself—even after those dugs, which looked as though they might suckle the whole world, were covered, Tammuz found his gaze returning to the woman’s bosom, looking past the red cotton [T shirt] (p. 189).

It’s evident that Paretsky is pushing Starr toward some symbolic or mythical significance, although exactly what the character signifies is unclear. Even Mara, Starr’s companion and champion, can’t explain her:

Why do you have to label her? It’s enough that she was here. She healed me, she healed Hector and dozens of other people. She saved my life, and Luisa’s too. Does it matter whether she did something supernatural or not? You looked into her eyes, and you saw yourself, just as you were. For some people that reflection was too horrible to endure. . . . But if you could stand your own reflection, you discovered you could like yourself (p. 377).

The book ends without satisfactorily establishing the purpose of this Earth Mother figure. Mara seems to have benefited from Starr’s presence, which is more than can be said for the reader. The best thing about Ghost Country is this reassurance that Paretsky offers in the prefatory note:  “For those worried about V.I. Warshawski, the detective has been on strike, but we are currently in mediation and should resume work together soon.”

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

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