Monday, October 13, 2008

Time After Time: Ghost Letters by Stephen Alter

At loose ends and lonely, Gil Mendelson-Finch wanders with his grandfather's nearly blind dog Kipling to the nearby beach, where he retrieves a strangely intriguing old bottle from the stony waterline. It is scuffed and chipped, but glows a brilliant blue and bears a strange title in raised script: A. K. Jaddoowalla's Finest Indian GRIPE WATER. On a whim Gil pulls from his jacket pocket a scrap of paper, a library overdue notice from the prestigious boarding school from which he has just been expelled, and scribbles a silly note on the back:

Help! I'm stranded on a desert island. Save me!
--Gil Mendelson-Finch

And in a way Gil is stranded. Stashed with a grandfather--a solitary poet at that--whom he hardly knows, in the centuries-old Finch homeplace on the New England coast, with no friends or school placement as yet, Gil is in limbo, with a possible incarceration in a hardcore military academy ordered up by his workaholic, globetrotting parents hanging over his head.

But when to his amazement the next day he finds the bottle washed ashore with a cryptic letter inside addressed to him from an Indian boy living in 1896, the whole thing seems beyond belief. His correspondent is also a twelve-year-old boy, a calligrapher's apprentice living in the province of Ajeebgarh, the site of the tea plantation through which Gil's ancestor Ezekial Finch established his family's fortune. Sikander is mystified by the note from the next century and includes a dated article from an Indian newspaper to prove that he is telling the truth about his own time. As the correspondence continues, Gil learns that Sikander's friend (and his ancestor) Lawrence Finch has been kidnapped for ransom by renegade British soldiers who have deserted a military force which threatens to wage war over a postage stamp dispute with the local maharajah.

In his rambles with his grandfather's dog, Kip, however, Gil meets a girl of his own age, Nargis, and the fact that her family are Indian immigrants brings him to show her the messages from Sikander found in the bottle. The two become friends almost immediately, and in their walks, Kip's unexpected wild barking leads them to an old mailbox in the town trash dump inside of which is a skeletal hand. But when the two return with Gil's grandfather, the hand is no longer there.

What follows is the stuff of a rousing good ghost tale, a story which becomes intricately interwoven with events from another century. As Sikander walks to the shores of the Mogar River to retrieve the blue bottle with Gil's latest note, he passes the grave marker of Ezekiel Finch, his friend Lawrence's uncle, who died in India without marrying when rejected by Camellia Stubbs, the love of his life. Gil, on the other hand, visits the old graveyard where Camellia is buried and learns of the long life of the spinster teacher who repented of her rejection of Ezekiel and vowed never to love another man.

Add to all of this a phantasmal figure of the mailman, trudging his ancient route with a bag of undelivered mail who gives Gil three letters which tie the different story strands together into one: one a letter from Camellia to Ezekiel, written just after he sailed for India, meant to be hand-carried to him and explaining that she still wishes to marry him; the second a crudely-written ransom note scribbled by the three Tommies who kidnapped Lawrence Finch; and the third an encrypted message from a British spy with information that, had it reached its destination, could have prevented the destruction of Ajeebgarh by the English forces. Gil and Nargis suddenly realize that they can change history if they can somehow find a way to return these letters to their rightful time and their intended recipients.

There's plenty more in this complex time-travelling, intellectual mystery/ghost tale to satisfy a wide range of readers. There is, for example, the spinster's skeletal hand, believed by local residents to be the hand of Camellia, which cannot rest until it finds a way to be reunited with the long dead hand of Ezekial Finch, a hand which, while horrifying, beneficently continues to connect the missing chain of communication which will right the long-dead miscommunications of the past. There is a natty and laconic British genie who appears when a verse of the Rubaiyat is read, and the discovery of a buried, jewelled golden inkstand, meant to be Camellia's engagement gift, which symbolically disappears from the ancient portrait of Ezekiel Finch when it is uncovered. In a tidy postscript, Gil and Nargis discover that Camellia's gravestone has disappeared from the Hornswoggle Bay Cemetery, while back in 1896, Sikander and Lawrence Finch discover a changed headstone at the site of Ezekiel's grave in India, with a new inscription for the joint grave of Ezekiel and his "beloved wife, Camellia."

Ghost Letters, like Stephen Alter's earlier The Phantom Isles, is the sort of mind-bending intellectual fantasy which will appeal to readers, especially male, of Blue Balliett's Chasing Vermeer trilogy, the time-travelling and multi-dimensional Gothic tales of John Bellairs, and, of course, the atmospheric fantasy mysteries of the master, Edgar Allan Poe.

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