cover image Migration of Ghosts

Migration of Ghosts

Pauline Melville. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, $23.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-1-58234-020-3

A magnificent sense of pacing is the first of Melville's skills that impresses the reader of this mesmerizing collection. The second is her gift for voices: like the brightly plumaged title character in ""The Parrot and Descartes,"" she has an amazing range, from West Indians in London celebrating carnival, to the self-conscious, resentful Macusi Indian brought by her literal-minded British husband to a wedding in London, to the irritable Canadian wife whose husband has been sent to Guyana for two years to serve as unofficial liar for a mining corporation. Magic realism is the label most readers and critics will paste on Melville's work (she won the Whitbread award for first novel for Ventriloquist's Tale and the Guardian Fiction Prize for her first collection of short stories, Shape Shifter); it is an appropriate but incomplete description. The dozen stories spill over with musical chaos and sly humor. The parrot's genetics insure that every word he hears will sink ""ineradicably into his memory."" In 1611 when he is brought from the shores of the Orinoco to Europe for a royal wedding, he hears one of the worst productions ever of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Like the characters in the play, like the parrot itself, Melville's people are dislocated both in time and place. In the carnival, a devil with red horns talks on a mobile phone to his wife, who is in labor at a nearby hospital, and a retired postal officer dressed in his dead wife's pink sweater and hairnet works up the courage to make a date with a career widow. In ""Lucifer's Shank"" a woman dying slowly of bone cancer selects Dante's Inferno as her guidebook. In ""The Sparkling Bitch"" the unsympathetic Charles Hay notes that the more transparent the buildings in London, the shadier the dealings inside ""this new phantasmagoria of commerce."" Meanwhile, Hays's trophy wife is dying, unnoticed, from sympathy with a skeletal beggar she met on the way to Lagos. The magic in Melville's eccentric tales is neither good nor bad, white nor black, but the magic of the teeming pluralness and the many possibilities of life. (May)