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Ghosts: Dolly Alderton’s debut novel haunts, but not in a good way

Book review: There are barbs and biting observations, but the humour falls flat in this story about a 32-year-old food writer’s dating disasters

Author: Dolly Alderton
ISBN-13: 978-0241434543
Publisher: Fig Tree
Guideline Price: £14.99

Never let anyone claim that being a critic is a soft job, I constantly put my life on the line. For example, just the other day I was leaving Mile End tube station when I felt the whoosh of a bullet miss my head by mere inches. When I turned to gather the source, I saw John Banville hurriedly escaping into a Skoda. A similar event befell me a couple of months ago when I found a dead rat in my sock drawer, a crumpled sheet of paper from “the desk of Edna O’Brien” shoved beneath the rodent corpse.

Oh it is a lonely life in the literary trenches, a life surely to become even lonelier as I must report that Dolly Alderton’s debut novel brought me nothing but pain and disappointment.

Ghosts is the story of Nina Dean, a popular food writer about to embark on her 32nd year, a year that the prologue threatens will be “the strangest year of [her] life”.

Nina is an intensely relatable protagonist; when she isn’t swimming in the Ladies’ Pond in Hampstead Heath she is busy inventing recipes in the one-bed flat that she owns in Archway. There is a touch of Holly Golightly to Nina, not least because they both share apartment buildings with inexplicably hostile and extremely foreign men. Some of her other hobbies include stealing and opening her neighbour’s post and being weirdly mean to her well-intentioned mother.


Having recently left a long-term relationship, Nina decides that she needs a fresh start, something to throw a spanner in her works. What could be more perfect than taking the perilous leap into the frenzied world of dating apps?

Alderton’s humorous skewering of dating apps surely makes Ghosts the most culturally relevant novel of 2014, a finger-on-the-pulse account of modern dating from someone who just discovered the “I’m in my mum’s car” vine. I must give her some credit, however. The novel’s barbs and biting observations are as succinct as the tweets they were all recycled from.

Alas, a part of me wishes that Alderton didn’t read into her position as the “Nora Ephron of the millennial generation” quite so literally as to essentially present a rehashed version of You’ve Got Mail with all the same ideas and foibles but without any of the charm, wit or timelessness.

I truly wish I could be kinder to Ghosts, but the whole reading experience made me quite depressed

While Alderton has found great success as a journalist and essayist and I cannot deny the cultural impact of Everything I Know About Love, her transition into prose fiction cannot be described as wholly successful. Her fictional prose is dense, thick like mayonnaise, and often forms itself into Pynchonian blocks of solid text. Injections of humour also tend to fall flat and you will often find lines like “I wished, more than anything, that I could buy a Durex for her heart” mortifyingly peppered throughout.

I know how ridiculous this sounds, but there are just so many words in this novel. During a time where spare, concise and unadorned prose seems to rule the roost, Alderton must be hailed as a brash iconoclast.

I see it as only fitting that I offer myself up to the Schadenfreude Shelf. Alderton has broken my soul

It is fitting that the novel is titled Ghosts because I felt myself quite haunted throughout, mostly by the spirit of Maeve Binchy. Binchy was truly one of this country’s greatest writers; I doubt anyone would deny it. I proudly display almost the entirety of Binchy’s bibliography on my bookshelves. Her novels are modest epics, always full of heart and brazenly progressive for their era. Would we even have Normal People if it weren’t for Echoes? Binchy’s influence is immense and far-reaching, especially upon the genre in which Ghosts lays its claim. And it fills me with nothing but sadness that on these grand foundations lies a hovel.

I truly wish I could be kinder to Ghosts, but the whole reading experience made me quite depressed. I suddenly feel at one with the Alec Guinness character in The Bridge on the River Kwai, his emotional journey through that film uncannily similar to my own.

There is an interesting ritual that Nina and her friend Lola perform throughout the novel. It’s called the Schadenfreude Shelf. In essence, it involves collecting stories of other people’s misfortune and placing them on a so-called shelf so that at opportune moments they can “put [their] disasters into perspective” by relishing in the misery of others. I see it as only fitting that I offer myself up to the Schadenfreude Shelf. Alderton has broken my soul.

As I write this, it is the middle of a bitter September night and the moon is hidden behind the clouds. In a few moments I will grab my keening shawl and set off into the blackness. Whether I return or not is a question for the wind.