This 1998 Sara Paretsky novel is slightly odd. It took me a while to work out where it might be going. Ghost Country is neither a V I Warshawski nor even crime. One cover quote calls it ‘magic realism’ which I suppose means that Sara engaged in some fantasy writing, but only insofar as some readers might have a problem recognising the possibility that a goddess is at work from the pipework outside a Chicago hotel car park.
Me, I am open to suggestion. I don’t see why there can’t be magic.
Setting aside the religious uncertainties, this is pretty much standard Sara Paretsky; looking at the inequalities in life and wanting to do something about it. If you are a woman, even a well-off lawyer, you are somehow more invisible than if you’d been a man. If you are black, then no one sees you. Add poverty and lack of education and sleeping rough, and you practically do not exist, and as such can have no rights.
Is it the blood of the Virgin Mary coming out of the cracks in that wall? Or it could be rust in the water. But it wouldn’t explain the woman calling herself Starr, who has such an effect on so many, but mostly women, and mostly the poor.
Two half-sisters, Harriet and Mara are struggling with life, each in their own way. There is a crazed opera singer who’s drinking too much, but who also sees more truths and offers them by way of belting out arias at all times. Her young niece still believes in her as a person. Finally there is a young, male, doctor, trying to do too much for too many people, while also being in thrall of Starr.
There are many very likeable characters here, but it took a long time to see that there could be a better future for them. The church, the police, the hotel, the sisters’ grandfather and his housekeeper, not to mention the press and television crews liking nothing better than some juicy scandal, make for an almost impossible problem.
With no V I to come to their rescue by solving a crime, the characters have to work on helping themselves. But you can, even if you’re a homeless black female. At least you could back then. Reading this novel with hindsight, knowing what we know today, we know what wrong politics and religion can do.