Tarby Manor by Robert Charest is a novel about love on every level--romantic, familial and holy. It is a ghost story that strives to be humorous at every turn, and encompasses every cliche ghost tale in doing so. The plot centers around Ned and Nell Tarby, husband and wife ghost who, being held accountable to God for the inadvertent murder of one another, are serving indefinite sentences within the confines of the mansion wherein they dwelled through life, their accidental deaths in 1747, and unto the present day 1993 of the novel.
The book opens with a seance conducted on the premises sometime in the 1920’s. Nell and Ned’s struggle both for control of the ouija board and the participants themselves result in the manor being boarded up and left utterly abandoned for more than six decades. Chapter 2 is a compendium of their daily nit-picking and bickering as it has evolved for almost three centuries.
In chapter 3 the Darbinger family braves history by opening up, dusting off and daring to inhabit Tarby Manor. Cyril Darbinger, their patriarch, is a professor of the paranormal at Bathwick University on sabbatical to study the famous haunted mansion; while his wife Charlotte, a painter, plans to clean up and design the three huge gardens as models for a series of paintings. They are accompanied by their three daughters: Gabrielle, the eldest, in her early twenties, is a sassy and strong-spoken young lady with intellectual interests in the supernormal as well as a woman’s interest in men; Grace, one year younger, is the more physically beautiful of the two, and passionately convicted almost to obsession with finding her perfect man; and Gertrude, also Gertie, is their sister a decade younger, a fit, active, smart-ass adolescent. They are joined a day later by Bernadette, their skeptical old friend and live-in housekeeper who staunchly maintains a nether world to be nonsense (though if they do manage to make contact she would dearly love to speak once more with her departed Arthur).
Chapters 5 and 6 serve both to expand on those established relationships while introducing another major player. Gerard is the handsome young gardener (who becomes affectionately known as the Gerardener), and who moves onto the estate in the capacity of Charlotte’s live-in landscaper. She does this without first consulting her husband, and in their argument the tensions in their marriage begin to surface. There is also an important appearance of the angel Peter to Ned and Nell, who admonishes them to stop arguing and reveals that they’re never going anywhere until they find the one thing that all must seek before entering Heaven.
Chapter 7 introduces one of the sub-plots, the goings on at the Flea and Firkin pub, which becomes a theatre of ale inspired one-liners. Grace stomps away in a huff one afternoon and stumbles into a pub in the village, where she meets some of the locals. Declan is the fast-talking lord of the bar, who instantly antagonizes and intrigues Grace. They quickly drop like fighters into a hearty banter about men, women and love that grows more heated the more they fuel it with beer. Olivia is the barwoman who sides with Grace by chiming in periodically to match barbs with Declan. And while Grace quickly perceives their polarized attraction to one another, Stephen, Declan’s shy, soft-spoken mate, drowns in a pool of infatuation with Grace. In the end Grace gets drunk and storms off in a dither.
Chapter 8 begins the following morning when Grace, in the throes of a miserable hangover, is greeted by her longtime suitor, Franklin, whose long expected marriage proposal she rejects, saying: “Don’t ask me to take that ring unless you want to see it thrown into the hedge!” He does, and she fulfills her vow.
Chapter 9, The Haunted Tree, introduces a literary device into the novel. Chapters 9, 15, 16, 18, 19 and 25 are short stories that, though vital organs of the novel, stand on their own as individual works of fiction. “The Haunted Tree” is a story begun by Gerard, whose great dream in life is to become a writer. He sits down one night to begin a story, but after one insipid page Nell takes over his pen, and exploding her pent-up energies through his unbelieving fingers transforms his stupid comedy into a horrific, apocalyptic nightmare.
Here the following fictional facts must be clarified. Gabrielle bears a perfect, exact resemblance to Nell at her age; as does Neal—who doesn’t appear until chapter 21—to Ned; and Nell and Ned’s heightened ability to influence the actions of Gabrielle and Neal deepens the romantic confusion that emerges as the novel progresses. Nell is attracted at once to Gerard, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jonathan, the boy with whom she was always truly in love, and who she regretfully left for Ned. Gabrielle, partially influenced by Nell and partly of her own free will, also becomes immediately infatuated with Gerard. Both Gerard and Ned, meanwhile, are intoxicated with Grace, and can think of nothing or anyone else. These complex and ever-changing relationships cannot be condensed into the sentences of a synopsis, but do unfold naturally throughout the course of the book, and provide the tension for much of the comedy.
At the start of chapter 10 Gerard has prepared ‘The Haunted Tree’ for publication by carefully expurgating all his conversations with Nell that came through his pen in the first draft. Gabrielle accidentally discovers the revised version, reads it, and is so enthralled by the short story that she excitedly shows it to her family. They confront Gerard, who acknowledges it, and Cyril, in disbelief at the maturity of what he has read, vows to exhaust every academic avenue necessary until the story sees the light of publication.
Chapter 11 is more eloquent bickering of Ned and Nell as they adapt to their new environment while adjusting to the fresh longings in their hearts. Chapter 12, The Second Seance, is a humorous interlude wherein Ned and Nell team up to humiliate Madam Blavatte, the world-famous Romanian psychic and medium; and wherein also Nell tricks an unwilling Gerard into giving Gabrielle a kiss, which Nell enjoys from inside Gabrielle’s body. Chapter 13 further develops the sub-plot at the Flea and Firkin, and in the drunken banter Grace and Declan express mutual indifference tempered with both intrigue and disgust, while silent Stephen stares on in mute awe, starry-eyed and head over heels, but too shy to act. Chapter 14 announces the acceptance of Gerard’s story (‘The Haunted Tree,’ truly written by Nell Tarby) for publication in Lifedrops, an important and potentially career launching periodical.
Chapters 15 and 16, Avril’s Entrance and Avril’s Exit, form another of the self-contained stories, a two chapter spoof of new age nonsense. Gerard’s estranged fiancée Avril shows up at Tarby Manor, barefoot and unannounced, with a tent on her back and a dog at her side. She has been transformed into a vagabond hippie during their several month separation. She camps in the yard and begins preaching her meaningless message of free love, crystals and tarot cards, which culminates when she plays some horrible flute at four in the morning to bond with nature, whereupon Nell drives her from the premises forever.
Chapter 17 further develops the triangle between Gabrielle, Grace and Gerard. One morning a few days later, Gabrielle has finally mustered the courage to make her feelings at least partially known to Gerard by inviting him to accompany her somewhere. But just as she’s approaching, and is close enough to watch from the bushes, Grace, on a whim, steps in and does what Gabrielle had just intended to do. Gerard accepts Grace’s invitation to go see an art exhibit with shock and half-concealed delight. Meanwhile Ned and Nell watch the scene with disgust, for it is a match that neither approves. Nell wants Gerard for Gabrielle, Ned wants Grace for himself, and they gang up to sabotage the date before it ever gets out of the kitchen by tripping Gerard with a broom, causing him to spill a full glass of iced tea all over Grace.
Chapters 18 and 19 are two more of the self-contained short stories. One night, through Gerard, Ned writes ‘The Lonely Princess,’ Ned’s fairy tale fantasy of being Grace’s shining knight and savior. Chapter 19 takes place in the same night. ‘The True History of Tarby Manor’ is an old manuscript hidden in a desk in a secret passageway, and its contents are revealed to the reader when Nell leads Gabrielle to it by inducing somnambulism. It was written by Nell more than two hundred fifty years earlier, and tells the sad, almost tragic story of how she ended up married to Ned instead of Jonathan.
Chapter 20, Two Presents, starts with Gerard and Gabrielle in their own rooms sitting before the revised versions of the manuscripts each was shown the previous night. Gerard presents his to Grace; and while she’s reading Gabrielle comes and presents Gerard with hers. All the sudden reactions of the five parties involved, spanning two realms, result in more comical chaos of the heart.
And all of that is only compounded by Neal’s arrival in chapter 21. He’s Gerard’s old mate from grade school who’s been seized by a sudden urge to see the world, and is passing through London with his backpack. Neal bears an uncannily exact resemblance to Ned in his youth, and upon seeing him Ned is ecstatic, as he sees his means of touching Grace, while Nell becomes violently ill. But then, upon meeting the sisters, Neal is bowled over not by Grace, to the relief of Gerard, but by Gabrielle, to the profound chagrin and terror of both Ned and Nell. Neal is extended a welcome invitation by the Darbingers to spend a few days in Tarby Manor, which he gladly and gratefully accepts. And while Ned and Nell watch on in anguished horror, Neal and Gerard vow and begin plotting to bring Gabrielle together with the former, and Grace with the latter. What ensues, although lucidly drawn in the narrative, would require most of the text itself just to summarize. Influenced by Ned and Nell, their own caprices, and the bumps of Fate, the characters bounce amongst each other with all the rapidity and predictability of pinballs.
Chapter 23, Marital Relations, starts with an argument between Cyril and Charlotte--about her wish to leave the haunted house at once and his to see his research to its end--and evolves into Ned and Nell’s mother of all battles. Their argument is abruptly interrupted by the second appearance of the angel Peter, at the beginning of Chapter 24. He chastises their infantile antics, and answers the question that what they must seek is love, and that marriage sanctified by God must stand for whatever reason. He accomplishes all this with a long monologue that I composed by using my memory and a concordance to search the Scriptures for every pertinent reference to love, which I then culled, shuffled and strung together.
Chapter 25, Hannibal’s Conquest, completes the cycle of the self-contained short stories. Immediately after Peter’s rebuke, Ned and Nell retreat to opposite corners of Tarby Manor to reflect on and absorb Peter’s words, and resign to the hard truth that for reasons certainly known only to God Himself, they were meant to be married. At length, after some hours have passed, Nell sort of floats over to Ned, and in her nonsensical wont utters the first few lines of a silly story. Unlike his old self, Ned picks up the thread and carries it through the absurd history of the manner in which an army of winged-cats, led by one Hannibal, overthrow the pernicious Roman Empire. And the laugh they share afterward marks the beginning of their reconciliation. But it is not without each making their own last minute lunge at desire before accepting Fate; which thrust propels the novel to its end.
They do make a sincere initial effort, for in the very next chapter Ned and Nell engineer the elaborate and seemingly coincidental bringing together of Neal and Gabrielle. In Chapter 28, Grace, taking advantage of an overture of flowers by Declan, tricks he and Olivia into kissing each other while wearing masks, thereby breaking the barrier between the blossoming of their love. Immediately thereafter Grace meets Ferdinand, the wandering entertainer who travels the world performing for his supper. He is a free spirit who she falls for hard and fast. In chapter 29 Gerard decides to make an all-out play for Grace, and if she won’t have him, then for Gabrielle. He is rejected on both counts, first for Franklin, then Neal.
The novel reaches culmination in chapter 30, in a cataclysm that begins with a food fight. Being forced to watch Neal and Gabrielle kissing and cuddling eventually gets to Nell, and she lashes out at Ned by seizing Gabrielle’s body and forcing her to hurl a handful of tapioca at Neal. (It happens to be Bernadette’s cooking day, and the dining room table is covered with casseroles, quiches, puddings and pies etc.) By the ineffable machinations of Chance, and a most delicate authorial hand, all the rest of the major characters--Bernadette, Cyril, Charlotte, Gertrude, Grace, Ferdinand, Olivia, Declan, Gerard and Stephen--just happen to enter the room during the ensuing three minutes of novel time, and the battle rapidly escalates into a full-out pastry war. Suddenly the earth rumbles and the walls shake leading to panic and chaos. Then a rift opens in their midst, and they witness Nell being dragged down to hell, and calling out to Ned for help. Ned hesitates, then dives in after, and moments later, before all their eyes, Ned and Nell ascend together and vanish beyond. They receive fair warning in the form of a couple more mild quakes, vacate in an instant, and watch from the lawn as Tarby Manor collapses upon itself. Following that the epilogue briefly describes how each of the characters enjoys a happy ending.