We Are Already Ghosts by Kit Dobson

There is a lyricism to Kit Dobson’s prose in We Are Already Ghosts, a way of revealing detail that is at once both elegant and calculated in its precision, distinguishing the novel by its tempered restraint. Despite a sparsity of particulars, the reader is introduced to the Briscoe-MacDougall family cabin where multiple generations of an extended family gather each summer. The cabin setting provides the ideal backdrop for the narrative, while the Canadian landscape itself plays a vital role.      

The shape of the novel itself is somewhat amorphous, following its own course, and much like the lake beside which it is set, creating a gentle ebb and flow in the text. Each successive summer at the cabin highlights the developments and changes taking place in the lives of the characters as they mature, strike out on their own, struggle with their own challenges, and ultimately face mortality as they age. The transient nature of their rich lives is contrasted against the stolid structure of the building, the imposing landscape and the embrace of the deep lake water. Even the children have somehow begun to understand the ephemeral nature of life. This is hinted at when one summer, they prepare an elaborate puppet show for the adults: 

Clare did not quite like it when one of the men said – in fact it was written on a banner that unfurled and then disappeared – to one of the women that this country was too new for ghosts. But he was then run offstage by a series of spectres and shades, for it was too true:  the denial of our ghosts and their eternal return, the haunting and the dread that put us all, one day, to rest. Because we are already ghosts.  

Daphne, one of the younger generation of visitors, is symbolically intentional in her disregard for finite endings. In a revealing scene when she was swimming, we are told that,  

She had left her towel and book behind on the shore.
Daphne had reached the penultimate page of the text and was holding true to her new resolution – borrowed from somewhere that she had already forgotten – never to read the final page of any book. She found it a small tragedy, every time, for a story to end. Oh, there are endings – like the final ending, of course – but stories go on. Clarissa Dalloway’s tale couldn’t end, and neither could Jane Eyre’s. Anne Shirley, mercifully, had many more books to inhabit, but that still didn’t solve the problem. Daphne had decided to boycott endings and to embrace instead the open.   

Structurally, Dobson has sectioned the book into four eras, each representing a roughly five-year period, that are set apart by what he terms “Corridors.” The four corridors function as passageways, leading the reader into the next series of progressions that have taken place for each constituent.  Including the family dog, there are fifteen individuals who contribute to the shifting dynamic within the family unit. As the years unfold and the story unspools, characters take their place in the world — marry, divorce, step away from the cabin, and ultimately return to accept the inevitability of the cycle of life. John, who has literally begun to walk in his father’s footsteps through the woodland, meditates upon his own situation:  

To make new choices, he realized, would be to honour those who came before him, those who had died in recent memory and those who were longer gone: his sister, his uncle, his father – even old Mackenzie. And then before them, his grandparents, the Briscoes, the MacDougalls, and the lives extending into the beyond of what he knew, of what he could see.  

Dobson has constructed a family saga that evokes a symbiotic relationship between landscape and identity that might be said to work with the same disquieting strangeness as is at the heart of Margaret Atwood’s iconic poem, This is a Photograph of Me, where the rhythms of time are rendered with both incisive focus and fluidity. There is a strong sense of continuity to the family unit, even as it evolves and encounters aging, death and beyond, juxtaposed with the durability of the land, trees and water. A quite beautiful paean. Recommended.  

Kit Dobson lives in Calgary, Treaty 7 territory, in southern Alberta. He is the author or editor of eight previous books, including Malled: Deciphering Shopping in Canada and Field Notes on Listening, one of the CBC’s top non-fiction books of 2022. We Are Already Ghosts is his first novel.

Publisher: University of Calgary Press (May 15, 2024)
Hardback 6″ x 9″ | 232 pages
ISBN: 978-1-77385-526-4

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Lucy E.M. Black (she/her/hers) is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, Eleanor Courtown, Stella’s Carpet and The Brickworks.  Her new short story collection, Class Lessons: Stories of Vulnerable Youth will be released October 2024. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA and Canada. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer and freelance writer.  She lives with her partner in the small lakeside town of Port Perry, Ontario, the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island, First Nations.

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