What's the line between falsehood and fantasy? Between fear and horror? Between other worlds and the ones we carry inside our heads? Graham Joyce has been asking — and brilliantly answering — these questions for years. His latest book, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, is no different. One of Britain's most quietly reliable fantasists, Joyce has written a jewel of a novel that blends gentle nostalgia, Bildungsroman angst, and a glimpse of the dark, unreal places where loss and memory mingle.
Set in the summer of 1976 on a seaside resort in England, the story is told in the first person from the point of view of David Barwise, a young college student from a working-class background. David's seemingly aimless choice of vacation spot isn't random at all. The resort, named Skegness, is the site of a tragedy in David's past: When David was 3, his father was found dead, there on the beach. David was with him. Too young to comprehend what had happened at the time, he now remembers very little of his father. He barely acknowledges to himself that his father's death might have something to do with Skegness' magnetic pull. Things pivot from pensive to preternatural when David begins to see a man in a sparkling blue suit on the beach — one whose face is an eerie blur — carrying with him a young boy whose eyes are just as inhumanly blank.
It's unearthly, but it's also wonderfully funny. Between intermittent sightings of the man in blue, David works himself into the rotation at Skegness, a broken-down relic stocked with a gallery of carnivalesque characters, all rendered with sympathetic richness. Eventually David gets caught in the gears of his co-workers' various dramas, from falling in love with a married woman to inadvertently attending a meeting of the racist National Front.
Despite the 40-year difference in era, shades of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock abound — a missing person gives rise to suspicions of murder, and there's even a character named Pinkie — but what appears to be a thriller is actually something far more dangerous. And far stranger, especially as David begins to dig up the memories of what happened to him and his father on that tragic day when he was 3.
As with Joyce's last novel, 2012's superb Some Kind of Fairytale, the thin wall between reality and what lies beyond is achingly stretched. But where Some Kind of Fairytale is complex and prismatic, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is clear and simple. Or so it seems on the surface. Joyce's ability to craft an intricate clockwork of a story is as strong as ever. Here, though, it's far more subtle. Tiny details — ladybugs, glasses of beer, a mine shaft — are reintroduced and given new meanings. His prose is exquisite, but never extravagant. And his dialogue is some of his best yet, whether it's David sparring with a sly police detective or trying to draw the truth out of his mother, who speaks in riddles and hints at secrets even as she makes worried-mom small talk.
The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit isn't a typical ghost story; Joyce's mix of the mundane and the magical here might not tip far enough to the latter for some of his fans.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club.