A while back, I reviewed Roberta Cheadle’s Through the Nethergate, and I found the research behind it very impressive. As well, the plot moved well, and the goals were sensible. I’d been following Cheadle for a while, and soon after I finished Nethergate, she published a post presenting A Ghost and His Gold as an upcoming book. I kept my eye out and purchased it when I could. Cheadle, who lives in South Africa and already proved herself to be a history buff, has written a historical, supernatural fiction with a South African backdrop. I’m pretty hype.
Before anyone starts this review or the book, I wanted to say here that there are some disturbing and violent scenes. They all are necessary to have on screen for plot and character development, and Cheadle does an excellent job framing them as such. It’s really obvious that the scene(s) in question are coming, so they can be skipped if you need to, but I’ll tell you right now: this is one of those books where all the pieces are thematically essential. There is payoff for reading the hard parts.
A Ghost and His Gold is an extremely ambitious work, and it’s quite impressive Cheadle was able to fit all of it into this short space. With multiple viewpoints, time settings, and an intensely researched historical backdrop, and deeply entrenched themes, there’s a lot going on. At the same time, Cheadle pulls it off by making an understandable story with compelling character arcs.
Probably the greatest achievement within the book was how the 1900-1904 timeline meshes so well with the 2019 timeline. While it does have the typical “figure out why the ghost is haunting us” sort of storyline to it, the way the two are connected makes it all the more intriguing. Estelle, who I’d consider the main ghost and at least the primary source of problems in the 2019 narrative, ties traits of modern-day Tom to people of the era in which she lived and died. Because of the necessary historical backdrop to Estelle’s demise, and because of Tom’s secret, the way the two timelines come together really works. I will admit that I was a little skeptical of having the 2019 part in the book, but I think it worked out. If you’ve read Through the Nethergate, you’ll probably get the feeling I did that Cheadle used similar mechanisms to mesh past and present as she did in that book.
Probably the most stunning part of this book, though, is setting. While the setting in Nethergate was well done, it didn’t have anywhere near the same feeling as in this book. There’s clear love and intimate personal knowledge here. I can feel the grit of the landscape of South Africa here. How she nonchalantly feels the seasons, like a frozen July and a hot February, isn’t something I think I could easily pull off. There is something magical about the way the land, not just the time, is treated in this book. It’s a very visceral connection to the veld that many of the characters have, even Michelle and Tom in 2019, and even if they don’t really know it. Land and the place our hearts are within it is a silent theme behind a lot of the book, but it’s a driving force. The British Empire wants it, the farmers want it, and Michelle and Tom’s attachment to their house and land brings together the tapestry.
The negative part of this ambitious scope is that, at times, there can be a lot of information dumps. Most of this comes through in descriptions of the war or the concentration camps. While I thought it was really interesting and, like with Cheadle’s earlier book Through the Nethergate, one of my personal favorite parts about her style, it did often interrupt the more character or plot-focused narrative. Though at times the footnotes regarding Boer or South African history can seem a little too easy, other times they’re essential or add a richness that would go unnoticed without them. As a whole, I think Cheadle weaved her way through the story and the subject matter well, but there are instances where I think it could have been smoothed. The book could have easily been twice the size and gotten away with it.
5/5 Discoball Snowcones
I don’t normally put spoiler reviews for pretty new indie books, but I think I will do so here, just a little bit.
Something I thought was interesting was how Estelle saw the world and how it treated her. It was very “teen”, even if very abused and dark. Estelle was brutally raped, and the way her (BIG OL SPOILER) stepmother Marta treated her was horrifying. She grew very bitter about it, but she did so in a way that was simultaneously inward and outwardly focused. How this combination of terrible abuse and festering hatred turned her into a haunting spirit felt so different from other ghosts I’ve read about or watched on TV. The sadness in her vengeance for her miseries and untimely death was quite palpable.
That being said, I think Estelle’s story could have been expanded. The period of time where she stays with Oom Willem isn’t very detailed, and yet it seems like it could have lasted a much longer time. Still, explaining Estelle’s relationship with Marta took quite a long time, and I think that made her my favorite character in this book.
Estelle’s story also pounded home the feminist themes of the book, and I greatly appreciate that. Though Estelle’s salvation came through forgiveness, the initial criminal is clear, and the need for kindness, equality, and more concern for human rights is apparent. There’s other themes that are important, but I’ve pointed out the ones I find most important in this review.
Join Me Tomorrow Night!
We’re also having a “Book Signing” party on January 4th from 8 to 11 pm EST for the new release Collective Fantasy! If you’re in the Salt Lake area, the physical party is going to be at Under the Umbrella bookstore, and there’s a virtual Zoom link (https://us02web.zoom.us/j/9630443174) for those who (like myself) are in other places. I’ll try to be on during the early parts, but no promises past 9:30 eastern, given my bedtime.
What I’m Reading Next:
This year, I’m not doing reading lists; instead, I’m going to be publishing posts as I read. However, I’m going to cheat a little bit this month because there’s four great indie books (including the one you just read about here) I read last year that are SCREAMING to be posted on the blog. Next in line is the indie chapbook Bottled Memories by David Ritter.