Puccini's Ghosts

Puccini's Ghosts

3.5 6
by Morag Joss

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CWA Silver Dagger Award winner Morag Joss peers into the soul of a wounded family in this haunting, harrowing masterpiece of psychological suspense. With equal parts subtlety and menace, Joss takes us on a dizzying journey toward a collision between fantasy and reality—and an astounding moment of revelation that shatters illusions, hopes, and lives forever.


CWA Silver Dagger Award winner Morag Joss peers into the soul of a wounded family in this haunting, harrowing masterpiece of psychological suspense. With equal parts subtlety and menace, Joss takes us on a dizzying journey toward a collision between fantasy and reality—and an astounding moment of revelation that shatters illusions, hopes, and lives forever.

The year is 1960. The place is a Scottish seaside town utterly devoid of culture and charm. Here, Lila lives as the third player in her parents’ dramatically embittered marriage. Until her flamboyant, irrepressible uncle George shows up from London and her family decides to squander a windfall on the most preposterous of causes: a civic production of the Puccini opera Turandot.

Lila knows nothing of opera and little of her uncle or the dashing young man he hires to sing the role of Calaf. But Lila does know passion. Because it’s coursing through her veins—and rushing blindly, wildly all around her. Now a girl on the verge of womanhood is about to blunder into a grown-up world where secrets are kept and exposed, hopes soar and wither, and where crimes petty and great exact the most chilling punishments of all.

Masterfully paced and spellbinding till its final, haunting scene, Puccini’s Ghosts is a piercing look into the fierce darkness that lurks behind seemingly ordinary lives.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Morag Joss has been compared to those other two premiere weird sisters in crime, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine and Minette Walters. Such compliments are tossed about all too lightly in the publishing world, but this one is so justified that it seems like an understatement.”—Washington Post Book World

"A cast of expertly drawn characters."—Publishers Weekly

Maureen Corrigan
Morag Joss has written a world-class creeper in Puccini's Ghosts. Unrequited love, flattened artistic ambition, the passionate naiveté of adolescence -- these elements intertwine in Joss's novel, exerting a stranglehold on the main characters. This is not a novel for young readers; indeed, anyone under 30 should be prohibited from buying it and directed, instead, to the more upbeat sections of the bookstore (home improvement, New Age spirituality, the coffee bar). For the message of Joss's memory tale is that sometimes the stupid mistakes you make when you're very young do wreck things, forever. Sometimes there is no second chance, no scurrying back to trod the path not taken.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
At the start of British author Joss's somber fifth novel of psychological suspense, opera singer Lila du Cann (nee Eliza Duncan) returns to her childhood home on the Scottish coast to bury her estranged father. As she starts clearing out the family house, a chance visit to the attic awakens memories of the summer she was 15. Flashback to 1960. Lila's charming uncle George, a music teacher, arrives from London and her warring parents agree willy-nilly to finance an amateur staging of Puccini's opera Turandot. Uncle George, the producer, hires an attractive tenor, Joe Foscari, for the male lead of Calaf. Soon Lila is smitten, but does Joe have designs on the adolescent girl or do his affections lie elsewhere? Despite a cast of expertly drawn characters, each unhappy in his or her own way, the plot is slow to develop. Still, Joss, whose Half Broken Things (2005) won the CWA Silver Dagger Award, shows real promise that she may one day join the ranks of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Silver Dagger Award winner Joss (Half Broken Things) has been compared to crime writer Ruth Rendell, and, like Rendell, she excels at painting characters with psychological flaws. Set in the summer of 1960, her latest book revolves around a dysfunctional rural English family with a chronically depressed mother, Flossie (or Fleur, as she pretentiously prefers), who never quite succeeded as an opera singer, though she has trouble admitting that. When Flossie's flamboyant music-teacher brother comes to town, he decides that staging a community production of Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot would be the perfect thing to snap his sister out her lethargy. Amazingly, he generates community-wide enthusiasm for and participation in the effort. Unfortunately, the growing infatuation of Flossie's 15-year-old daughter Lila with a lead singer from London triggers a disastrous chain of events. Moving back and forth in time from 1960 to the present, the narrative fills the reader with a sense of impending doom long before the characters suspect anything is wrong. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Mystery, LJ 5/1/06.]-Caroline Mann, Univ. of Portland Lib., OR Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Now I’m here I begin to sense the trouble I’m in. I’m back at the window but the view has changed. I haven’t switched on a light so I’m standing in the dark watching night colours gleam through the glass: silvered wet tarmac, darts of rain caught in the cloudy glow under the streetlights and across the road, garden walls soaked in warm, sodium glare. There are no streetlights on our side—they belong to the new houses—but their orange sheen leaks as far as our privet hedge, staining its green leaves brown. The old road is a street now. At intervals across it there are lumps lying in wait to slow the traffic; even at this hour one or two cars pass. The beam of their white headlamps tilts and dips and steadies as they curtsey over the bumps and then they pick up speed with the fizz of tyres on the wet road, pulling their shadows after them. I follow the line of streetlights stretching through the sky all the way back to the bridge, receding spangles of orange distorted by the rain on the window into a row of tiny bursting suns. Behind me, the room creaks with damp, its emptiness sighs. But I will not turn round yet, nor switch on a light. I know what it would show me. I shall carry on standing here, looking out and feeling ridiculous.

What was the rush? Why did I drop everything and come immediately to arrive so late at night, when tomorrow would have done? When they rang to tell me he was dead I came at once as if, having just died, he might be still within reach, somehow not quite gone. His death reminds me of something obvious that I feel stupid for having overlooked, that he was old and one day would die, and yet how can he leave like this, a man who never did anything sudden in his life? I talked to him in my head all the way here. I told him I was sorry.

I’m sorry, I say again now.

All I hear in reply is his tired voice, Och, Lizzie. His voice comes to me, it seems, from a great distance. He sounds lost and cut-off as if he has got himself stranded somewhere, though he isn’t crying for help; he is, if anything, resigned.

Och, Lizzie.

I can’t tell if he means it as dismissal or forgiveness.

Maybe it isn’t so ridiculous, my jumping to attention now he has died; maybe it’s an effect the newly dead have on the rest of us. And am I acting any more suddenly than he did? Off he goes raising a cloud of dust and up I start, needing to move in some direction or another, as if giving chase. It’s the kind of thing, scrupulously misinterpreted to feed their hunger for a disgraceful tale, that people round here get their teeth into. I can hear their voices, too.

Doesn’t see him for years but she’s here fast enough to hear the will read.

I don’t know if he made a will. But even while I’m booking a flight, packing, cancelling appointments, I think I make out a shape in the dust as it begins to settle, some dark weight he left behind. It’s cumbersome, as heavy as history, and I have no use for it, yet I can’t leave it lying unclaimed. It’s the past, and now it’s mine and I have to do something with it. He’s not been dead a day but I intend to be practical about it, as I will be about his other things. Already they are no longer just his things but obstacles of a kind, an affront to order, a challenge to the clarity of what belongs where and to whom. I am unsettled by the sudden knowledge that, for an interval at least, everything the dead leave behind is still theirs and yet no-one’s, though I’m not sure if this question of ownership is a trivial or a profound matter. But what a strange hurry I feel to bestow or destroy, as if his belongings might be dangerous if they are not at once attached elsewhere. I don’t care where they go as long as I get them off my hands, and it’s the same with this story of our past. It’s a shapeless load with one straggling thread, its unsatisfactory ending, that trails from it like a fuse. I want it tucked out of sight. I have to find somewhere to dump it, some unvisited place in my mind, a kind of mental cupboard under the stairs for a filled sack of worn-out memories.

They’ll expect a show at the funeral. Not necessarily of grief, but they’ll expect me to make myself somehow conspicuous; I’m sure there are still those who like to think I’m as bad as my mother. Thinks she’s the next Maria Callas your mum, everybody says so, Enid used to say, smirking at the very idea, and I would snigger with embarrassment because my mother did think that. Or believed she might have been if my father hadn’t ruined her chances, as she so perfectly rewrote events. In my mother’s mind she and my father are Persephone and Pluto; he practically threw her in a sack and bore her down into darkness although he, lacking any authority, makes an improbable god of the underworld. But by the time I’m fifteen I believe completely in her shuttered and powerless misery, which seems irreversible. She lives here as if unable to break out of some truly dreadful contract, under a form of house arrest that leaves her in turn distraught and enervated. All that changes, of course, but I cannot look round from the window now that this recollection is upon me.

Behind me she sits, with Uncle George. They’re lingering over breakfast, I’m clearing it away.

I need a day off. The voice is tired, she tells him. I’m tired, vocally.

I remember now, she’s in a sulk because he has made her give up cigarettes but is still smoking himself.

He says, But you don’t know the part properly yet.

I don’t want to get stale.

Come on, Florrie, he says, wise up. If Callas spends every hour God sends preparing a role, why shouldn’t you?

He’s the one who sounds tired. He has his chin cupped in the hand that holds the cigarette and threads of smoke are weaving up through his hair, silvery blue into chestnut. With the spent match in his other hand he is stirring a little paste he has made out of toast crumbs and leftover butter on the side of his plate, black into pale yellow, over a pattern of ferns.

Don’t call me Florrie, she says, waving away the smoke. It’s Fleur. And don’t talk to me about Callas.

She stands, sets her shoulders wide, looks through this window and arches her eyebrows. Out pours the final phrase of ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca, minus the words, for she doesn’t know them beyond the first two lines. I notice how unused her lips are to being stretched, as if they haven’t done enough laughing. Uncle George looks away and smiles his private smile with one last drag on the cigarette, which he stubs out in the paste of crumbs and butter. The way it hisses a little seems to seal the point, as far as I am concerned.

Of all those people who said my mother thought she was the next Maria Callas, I wonder how many are still here.

When I arrived, I found the key where it’s always been behind the loose brick in the garage wall. I stepped through the kitchen and into the back room that my father’s life had shrunk to fit: one armchair, the television, everything else on castors. At once I snapped off the light and came in here to the dining room. In a minute or two I’ll find my way upstairs in the dark and grope around for blankets in the landing cupboard. I cannot bear bleak electric light scouring the corners and washing out shadows, showing me how unchanged everything is.

I’ll linger here just a while longer. In the silences between cars I listen for the rasp of the incoming water of the Firth up the beach not far behind the house, but maybe I only imagine I can hear it, in the same way that I imagine the moon, invisible tonight behind clouds, pulling the tide across the shore. I like such commonplace movements as these: the coming and going of the sea, the falling of rain, the passing of cars. In this dead room, from behind the glass, I feel I am witnessing a kind of breathing.

Meet the Author

Morag Joss grew up on the west coast of Scotland. Her first Sara Selkirk novel, Funeral Music, was nominated by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association for the Dilys Award for the year’s favorite mystery. Her fourth novel, Half Broken Things, won the 2003 CWA Silver Dagger Award. Morag Joss lives in the country outside the city of Bath and in London.

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Puccini's Ghosts 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Maximillian More than 1 year ago
It's always like finding a treasure when I discover I like a book by an author unknown to me up to this point in my reading. The writing is a bit florid at times; I found I had to reread sentences sometimes to make sure I understood the author's intent. The plot is certainly unique. The dysfunctional family has some issues that are not unique, but the plot and setting give them a different twist. I would say this was a refreshing change from much of today's fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written, with great character development. For my taste, it was too overwhelming - black vortex of hopelessness, mental illness, sadness and despair. Great read for someone who can appreciate the prose and the painful, articulated way the story unfolds.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i found this book to be very well written and i think the author did a great job of evoking a creepy, sad and dysfunctional mood. usually that works for me, but i couldn't wait for the book to end. i think the only reason i finished it was to find out what horrible thing befell the family, b/c it was clear something did. there was such buildup, i suppose the ending couldn't help but be a disappointment. also, i found the style to be mostly introspective, and that became wearying after awhile.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'll be doing a public service to warn unsuspecting potential readers about this tome. First it's description-heavy ala Tom Wolfe (whom I love by the way but at least he's funny). I'm over 50 and I found the story very depressing and the teenage 'heroine' to be deluded beyond reason. If you like reading a story that takes the entire book to get to the one 'disasterous event,' (an opera), then proceed. The journey getting there is neither little nor interesting. May I suggest that if you must, read the first 100 pages and if you're having trouble 'getting into it' because of the obtuse, wordy and confusing alledged plotline, then I urge you put it down and move on to greener pastures! I kept plodding on in spite of my instincts and I was disgusted with myself for trudging to the sad anti-climatic ending. Some sad stories are enjoyable but not this. Thanks for listening.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A dear friend and fellow reader gave me this as a gift (maybe because she knows I love opera?). At any rate, my usual fare is page-turner suspense: thrillers, espionage, mysteries and such. This book is none of those things, but the writing is just phenomenal. I saw the ending a mile away, but the story is told in such a compelling way, with colorful imagery incorporating all senses and skillful use of metaphors and similies, that it just carried me along.Good stuff.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When her father dies, retired opera chorister, Lila DuCann, returns to her hometown Burnhead, Scotland to attend his funeral. She has been away from the town for years and has not seen her dad in a long time. Thus when she grieves her loss she is taken aback as memories of 1960, the fateful ¿Turandot Summer¿ when she was fifteen years old, flow freely.-------------- Her lunatic thirtyish Uncle George Pettifer, a London music teacher, obstinately decides to direct a local production of Puccini's opera Turandot starring Lila's mom Florence ¿Fleur¿ Duncan as the title character and Lila in the support female role as slave girl Liu. Local amateur musicians and singers round out the cast. Thus only Fleur had any real experience and she never moved far up the singer¿s food chain. However Fleur felt she was just one song from being discovered and being treated like a pampered adored Prima Donna. To provide some quality, George brings his London friend Joe Foscari to serve as the male lead. Lila falls in love her first crush, but the failed presentation only highlighted the flop of her family leading to a tragedy and a teen in exile from her home.------------- PUCCINI¿S GHOSTS is a terrific drama that grips readers as they wonder what happened in the summer of 1960 that destroyed a family. As Lila tells the tale from her perspective looking back to when she was a teen, fans will soon wonder whether she can delineate reality from a fantasy created perhaps out of FEARFUL SYMMETRY of what is truth. Morag Joss provides a virtuoso performance (sans Sara Selkirk) with the attendees listening to FUNERAL MUSIC and knowing first hand about dreams of HALF BROKEN THINGS.---------------- Harriet Klausner