At times, the book entertains the hopeful suggestion that the quality and experience of our life is determined by what we see in it. The “broken ghost” that draws so many in search of a vague spiritual kindling may just be a “brocken spectre” – one’s own extremely elongated shadow on mist; and, while shit may be a byword for foulness and waste, it is, as Adam remembers, also fertilizer – it nurtures new growth. That said, Griffiths is not one to romanticize. To free the characters from their problems simply because they view things differently would be to sugar-coat the real problems of the people they represent. The ending is horrible, as it should be.
This is a book powered along with ferocious momentum by the raw nervous energy of its characters, whose demotic, alternating narratives seem to muscle bodily off the page.
However, Griffiths is at pains to set the damaged threesome’s harrowing travails within the context of Brexit and austerity, the divisive and corrosive effects of which he dramatises sympathetically and uncompromisingly.
This is not just épater les bourgeois. The politics of the novel run naked and raw. Broken Ghost is about what seeps out at the periphery when the centre is rotten, a novel that seethes with anger at austerity and Brexit and the way those at the edge of society are discarded and destroyed, even at the moment of their yearning for something more. At its best, it is a novel that intoxicates. But you had better be able to handle the hangover.
There’s also a certain bathos in how the novel segues from its spectacularly bleak climax of bloodthirsty police violence to the acknowledgments, where Griffiths points out: “Oh, and as far as I know, Cardiff city council does not, never has, and never will utilise anti-homeless spikes.” But since it suits the novel in one scene to imply otherwise, this seems a fairly damaging admission: that, however visceral or inspiring, Broken Ghost’s portrait of state-sponsored social breakdown has a thumb firmly on the scales.
Narrated by each character in turn, it is relentlessly demotic as Griffiths submerges the reader in a prosaic world of benefit investigations, bare-knuckle boxing, and watching Jeremy Kyle with Diamond White cider. Yet rising above it is a vision that may or may not have been real, and suddenly the scene on a Welsh hill is half rave and half Lourdes. Griffiths’s novel is an unusual mix of political and mystical, lifted by the possibility — albeit short-lived and violently anticlimactic, in this case — of social transformation.
This important novel comes from a tradition: from the green fuse of Dylan Thomas and Caradoc Evans, the unstable religiosity of RS Thomas. The result, though, is something new, a profane, passionate response to nature and to the countryside, which is rarely encountered in contemporary British fiction any more. In its singular and unfashionable way, Broken Ghost is also a religious novel. A nonconformist sermon, it begs us all to let some sort of transforming spectre – holy or not – enter our lesser selves, or we will not be saved.