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The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

Cover image.
One part of my job involves me walking around other English teachers' classrooms and making sure that our younger students are getting the best from of our department. On one such ramble I saw a copy of The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively (1973).

The one and only time that I had previously come across the book was during Miss Appleby's Year 8 English class at Aylesford School, Warwick. It had been the focus of one half term's assessment, but now twenty years later, I thought it would make a good Hallowe'en book to read.

The story is set in the early 1970s and centres around a young boy, James, and his family who have just moved into a small cottage in the fictional Oxfordshire village of Ledsham.

The tale begins with workmen in the roof of the cottage converting the attic into a bedroom. As they are chipping away at the walls, a small green bottle, seemingly hidden behind the plaster, falls out and onto the ground, smashing in the process. 

Not long after this innocuous incident, strange things start to happen around the house; writing appearing in an old script, strange draughts, and things suddenly breaking. It soon becomes apparent, to James at least, that there may be something more supernatural going on.

Inevitably, the strange behaviour gets blamed on James, much to his older sister's delight, but with his roguish dog Tim as a guardian and his slightly disbelieving friend Simon on hand to provide some moral support, he sets about getting to the bottom of the mystery.

Illustration from inside the book.
The book definitely shows its age, and, being aimed at children, brings with it a host of predictable plot twists. It would be easy to think this story would no longer be interesting in a world where there is now so much children’s fiction filling the shelves, but this does the story a disservice.

It is a quick paced, engaging, funny and, ultimately, relatable story that many a mischievous child (or adult) would be intrigued by. Furthermore, in terms of the vocabulary Lively uses, it is a cut above some children's literature.

Penelope Lively’s own interest in the changing nature of society and our relationship with the past permeates the narrative. Throughout the story there are hints at the encroachment of modernity, the burial and ignorance of the past, and one boy’s struggle to mediate between the two. Indeed, as the story unfolds, we see that even the eponymous poltergeist struggles to fit in to this new world being from such different times.

For me, the story obviously represented a brief nostalgic trip down memory lane to a time when I sat at the back of an English classroom terrorising the teacher and two girls called Jenny with my own mischievous nature, but in the present, it made for a decent Halloween read.

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