Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Ghosts of Ashbury High by Jaclyn Moriarty

So, The Ghost of Ashbury High? It has a pretty cool setting.

This book, the entire thing basically, takes place on a high school grade twelve Australian English exam on Gothic fiction. English like Language Arts and Literature, not the learning and speaking of a dialect of Australian English, which, you know, would be its own sort of innovative thing and would probably be shelved over in linguistics instead of young adult fiction, or in something else entirely like “Travel!” or “Grammar!” or “How to Learn this Language Without Even Trying!”

Jaclyn Moriarty has a tendency to play around with form. Her previous books (Feeling Sorry for CeliaThe Year of Secret Assignments, and The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie) tell stories through letters, transcripts, journals, and notes on the fridge. And it doesn’t seem like she sits down and thinks, “Hmmm, how can I take this completely out of the realm of ‘traditional narrative’? Let me brainstorm the ways.” It just really seems like Moriarty has found a mode of writing that is outside of a third person or even traditional first person narrative, like, “Oh hey. This comes pretty natural. Letters and exams. People say some kind of cool stuff on those things.”

Moriarty takes an exam and she uses the questions as guiding points to explore her characters. Continuing in her Ashbury/Brookfield cycle of books (about characters who attend two Australian schools), The Ghosts of Asbury High primarily explores the relationship between Riley and Amelia, two students who have recently transferred from Brookfield to Ashbury. Characters outside of the relationship cite the gothic occurrences that they observe in their experience of Riley and Amelia, and these stories become examples on the examination. In this way, Moriarty writes a gothic story with elements of the fantastical and unexplained hauntings, however, she uses the very explicit mode of an exam that asks students to outline these same tropes to do it. It’s ridiculously metafictional and a lot of fun to read.

Recurring characters Toby, Emily, and Lydia from previous Brookfield/Ashbury books are also at the center of this novel, in addition to narrator Riley. I think Emily will always be my favorite character in any of Moriarty’s books, even if she constitutes a side character rather than a main one. She’s basically addicted to Toblerone bars and she’s always mixing up words and context, like when she describes her friend Lydia and she says, “She is not shy, but she is suspicious and therefore a bit of a reservoir with strangers.” It’s intentional humor by the author Moriarty, but this sort of self consciousness for the character Emily. It’s an interesting effect that really leads itself to a kind of character empathy.

I became really invested in the characters, but even more in the form. Mostly, I think, because it’s the form that allows for this heavy character investment. It sort of reminds me of being stressed in English class in high school when you get one of those assignments that says, “Ok, you totally have free reign here. You know, some creative leeway. Let’s see what you’re going to do with it.” And what you want to do with it is kind of be like, “Creative? I’ll show you creative!” and open up the craft drawer with the felt pens and markers and glitter and a pair of those scissors that cut cool patterns into the paper. Like that might be appreciated by a high school English teacher.

It’s so infrequent that you’re not just dealing with question, answer, multiple choice in high school that something like a creative assignment comes up and it’s pretty exciting and it's kind of stressful to really feel like you're throwing everything into it to make up for the rest of the year. But Moriarty takes the boring question/answer and then says to her characters, “Okay. Creativity. Let’s see what you can do.” And they just go. And they show off. And they become authors writing a story instead of characters taking an exam.

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