The trope of the ghost in literature has been around for centuries of course, but it seems like, this last decade, ghosts are central to books and their notions again. Anne Carson’s brilliant pamphlet with The Well Review this year was (aptly) called Ghost Q&A; Cesar Aira’s recent novella about a group of naked ghosts haunting a building site was utterly mesmeric. For me, the ‘joint-best book of 2017’ was about ghosts too. It is a book of poems called Dogtooth, by Fran Lock.

Along with Anne Carson, I think Fran Lock has a (near) unique literary ability to manipulate the realities of language in the same way that Neo is able to manipulate The Matrix (I’ve waited a fair while to get that analogy into print!). But what can I say about this book? It is a work of sheer wonder: the wonder of the everyday. But that wonder, reverent as it is, is also filled with a low-level and often manic anxiety. So it is also a book about the anxiety of the everyday. And its ghosts – ‘ghosts [that] move with the urgency of paramedics’ – are not only the people who’ve died; they are the people who’ve moved away; people who can’t be found . . . Or, indeed, people who simply aren’t noticed: those who live in the margins of society, in the council flat blocks or caravan sites; the manic, fleeting Saturday night revellers, the online hate-mailers and their victims; those who know to the penny how much they have in their bank accounts; those who are on the outside of a house all closed up; ‘young women held together by white fleecy headbands’; those who are assigned case workers; protagonists ‘YouTubing tyre-fires and hurt in the heart’. In short: those who we’d simply like to pretend aren’t there.

Lock’s modernist lines sing a weird, purposefully erratic and yet complete sort of lyricism, the high register brought skidding onto the pavement, where it adapts and even enjoys its new milieu. It is, concurrently, the language of the internet, the language of romance, the language of those council flats, of cheap boozers, of margins . . . Think of Lock, perhaps, as a precursor to Kate Tempest.

I’ve been developing this theory lately, about how humans develop (in a spiritual/psychological sense) inversely to trees. Whereas trees grow into the space available, so that they can flourish in the light, we seem to form our personalities, our selves, around voids: loss, grief, regret, actions not taken, things gone, things not possessed . . . These lacks often come to define us, to define our shape in the world; we carry them within us (like black holes maybe?) everywhere we go. These are our ghosts perhaps, and Dogtooth seems to me to grow its poems around such voids, such lacks, things or people we need or miss so much, or that refuse to leave us in peace. At the same time though, the lyricism of the book, the love in the poems, is always, always reaching for light.

I can say less about my other ‘joint-best book of 2017’, because it mostly leaves me speechless. The Giving Light is a book of photographs (referred to in some quarters as a photo-novel) by Irish writer (and photographer I guess) Gavin Corbett. Again, this is a book that dwells in the margins. Its gaze is turned to the graffiti brick walls and chalked, cracked pavements of the urban; to the edge of a suburban lawn, where clipped grass meets scrubland; to waste ground; to objects discarded; to the supposedly inconsequential. This is a book with its own ghosts: people caught side-on in a particular moment of time; figures on distant pavements. And Corbett is another artist seeking the light. The angles of light in this book, the titular light, are by turns generous, dying, reverent, divine, fallen, falling, radiant, opaque . . .

The book is a gorgeous object too, with plenty of white space (for pondering) around the photographs, and the intricate hand-stitching and thick paper that leave a person happy just to hold a thing and to feel the turn in its pages.

Both of these books do dwell in the margins – a point I’m sure I’ve driven home – and it feels right that we’ve started looking properly, in the last few years, at the margins of our societies. These are places like any other: full of story, full of love, full of violence, full of ghosts, wonder and anxiety. Beautiful, flawed, haunted, and so on. Yet, why are we so often afraid to see them?

Best Book of 2011: Kingdom Animalia
Best Book of 2005: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty