As a rule, I don’t like ghost stories. I prefer my horror to be physical: alluring vampires, fast spreading viruses, and even witches. Had I realized that the Barter, a novel by Siobhan Adcock, centered around a ghost, I never would have picked it up. And that would have been my loss, as I would have missed out on this delightfully creepy post partum novel.
The Barter has two main characters, two very different women struggling with marriage and motherhood one hundred years apart. Bridget lives in present day Austin. Having just quit her law firm to become a stay at home mom, her entire identity is in question. When a menacing presence begins appearing as she nurses her baby late at night, her sanity and her marriage come close to the brink. Rebecca is the other main character and her story unfolds in 1902. Newly married at a young age, she pulls away from her husband, insecure about her sexuality, building walls up in her marriage that will tear them apart.
Bridget’s story is what kept me hooked, sneaking off to the living room in the middle of the day to read a few more pages. Adcock really brought me back to the hallucinatory quality of that first year of motherhood, with all those raging emotions rocking your body fueled by so little sleep, still recovering from the violence of birth and the toll of breastfeeding. That first year is such a confusing time of powerfulness and powerlessness. Imagining having to deal with a smelly, threatening ghost that only you and your child could see was a horror I simply could not tear myself away from.
Julie and Mark are asleep, and Bridget is almost asleep herself, breathing the heat and scent of the little blanket-shrouded valley between parents where baby Julie sleeps – detergent, skin, a faint whiff of pee (she should have changed Julie first, she supposes) – when the bedroom door opens and the smell of dirt enters the room.
The ending didn’t resolve the ghost question as clearly as I would have liked, but that may just be my hang up with ghost stories. Ghosts are nebulous and not neatly explained. I still enthusiastically recommend the Barter. It’s a quick read, but a rich read nonetheless, with plenty of conversation material about motherhood, female identity, marriage, and the horrors that lurk in our homes for your bookclub or coffee with friends.