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DisPossession: Haunting in Canadian Fiction by Marlene Goldman (review)

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 2, June 2012
pp. 207-210 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0025

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The explosion of interest in the field of study that brings together the Gothic, the uncanny, the haunted, and the haunting, together with a postcolonial reassessive method, suggests that perhaps the ghosts and monsters that haunt the nation/subject (from without and within) are finally being heard.

Cynthia Sugars and Gerry Turcotte

A desire to listen to the spectres that haunt recent Canadian literature underlies Marlene Goldman’s latest monograph, DisPossession: Haunting in Canadian Fiction. As she proposes in her introduction, “despite or perhaps because of Birney’s suggestion that Canadians are haunted by a lack of spectres, contemporary English-Canadian authors are obsessed with ghosts and haunting” (3). DisPossession explores in depth how seven of these contemporary authors deploy tropes of haunting and possession in one or, in the case of Dionne Brand, several of their works. In addition to Brand’s corpus, Goldman examines Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s The Cure for Death by Lightning, John Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright, Jane Urquhart’s Away, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, and Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water. Mobilizing literature’s political capacities, DisPossession links haunting in these texts to a praxis of engagement with the fraught and troubling strains of Canada’s social history and national imaginary. Goldman outlines this praxis most explicitly in her conclusion, “Toward an Ethics of Haunting,” where she posits that “Canadian literature that invokes haunting and possession is ‘good for us’ precisely because it emphasizes the elided histories and resistance of the other” (306). In Canada, she argues, living with ghosts means recognizing without mastering the opaque, unsettled, and unsettling parts of “the complex territory of home” (320).

In keeping with the methodological bent of her previous books, Goldman draws from a range of theoretical frameworks, including postcolonial, poststructuralist, feminist, queer, and psychoanalytical, to tease out the varied contexts and implications of each literary work. She also attends closely to the “cultural and historical specificities” of each text and underscores the influence not just of the Gothic but also of magic realism, Celticism, and Aboriginal and Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions on the individual workings of haunting and possession. The result is a collection of close readings that extend and supplement earlier studies such as Jonathan Kertzer’s Worrying the Nation: Imagining a National Literature in English Canada and Justin Edwards’s Gothic Canada: Reading the Spectre of a National Literature by opening up the particularities of our “cultural haunting” in its various forms. Goldman unpacks the tropes of haunting and possession not only along the lines of nationhood and citizenship but also of “a broader tendency on the part of western cultures to suppress one side of many perceived dualities, including male/female, civilization/ savagery, and reason/passion” (6). As well, she underscores the challenges that these fictional spectres pose to “the settler’s spatial and ontological paradigm of the self-possessed, autonomous man” (or, as she demonstrates with particular force in her readings of Alias Grace, Away, and, in Dionne Brand’s work, woman) (244).

Although they do not conform solely to Gothic modes, the haunted narratives that Goldman explores in her study all partake of the Gothic’s association of the ghostly form with the “other” that cannot be assimilated. Following Cynthia Sugars and Gerry Turcotte, among others, Goldman also underscores the connection between haunting in Canadian literature and “the ‘unhomely’ or ‘spectral’ legacies of imperialism and globalization” (Sugars and Turcotte vii). A constant throughout her book is the (elusive) idea of home: “One reason for the popularity of tales of haunting and possession,” she suggests, “may be the fact that the movement from the domestic sphere into the global marketplace, instigated by global capitalism and diasporic upheavals, has meant that home as a constant has become less of a given, as more and more people are unhomed—often forced to exist in a kind of liminal space traditionally associated with the ghost” (14). As her title intimates, the texts under scrutiny here all share a particular concern with histories of dispossession and possession. At the most basic level, Canada is built on the dispossession of Aboriginal lands by settler-invaders (Goldman’s...



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