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The Ghosts of Ashbury High

Review

The Ghosts of Ashbury High

Australian novelist Jaclyn Moriarty excels at a number of things, but particularly at the challenging task of telling a story --- even a complex, multifaceted story --- through the use of letters, diary entries, blog postings, homework assignments, and other nontraditional sources. Her documentary approach to fiction is a perfect match to her subject matter; her novels often explore the overlapping lives and loves of high school students, and her stories typically take the form of mysteries. By experiencing a story through documents, readers feel simultaneously like they’re fitting together the pieces of a puzzle and that they’re really getting to know Moriarty’s characters, the “authors” of the works they’re reading.

In THE GHOSTS OF ASHBURY HIGH, Moriarty returns to territory --- and characters --- that will be familiar to fans of her earlier work, particularly THE MURDER OF BINDY MACKENZIE and THE YEAR OF SECRET ASSIGNMENTS, both of which are set at Ashbury High and feature characters who also play roles in this most recent novel.

Here the documentary items are primarily related to a series of questions and assignments that are part of the Higher School Certificate Examination, a major test and associated projects undertaken by Australian students during their final year in high school. For the students in this book --- which include Emily, Lydia and Cass (from THE YEAR OF SECRET ASSIGNMENTS) --- the topic of their examination is Gothic fiction, which also provides much of the background of topic and theme to Moriarty’s own novel. Dark histories, suspicious coincidences, untold secrets and possible ghosts all play major roles in traditional Gothic literature; not surprisingly, they’re also at the center of THE GHOSTS OF ASHBURY HIGH.

Most mysterious are Riley and Amelia, new students who used to attend a nearby public school, Brookfield, but are now at prestigious Ashbury High thanks to a scholarship. They are a couple whose allure are only enhanced by their preternatural talents at swimming, drama and art, skills they seem to prefer to keep to themselves. Emily and Lydia, in particular, become increasingly intrigued by them, determined to figure out their real history.

Speaking of history, the girls’ classmate, Toby, is hoping to raise his history grade by completing a project about Tom Kincaid, a young Irishman brought to Australia when it was a penal colony in the early 19th century. As Toby becomes more interested in Tom’s story and New South Wales, this history seems to intersect more and more strongly with Toby’s own family drama as well as with current events at Ashbury High.

Fans of Moriarty’s earlier work will be excited to catch up with some favorite characters, to immerse themselves again in Emily’s hilariously enthusiastic narratives, riddled with misspellings, misused words and exclamation points, and in Lydia’s more nuanced writing style. They’ll also enjoy coming to know both modern-day Toby and the potentially unfamiliar story of Australia’s history. As with Moriarty’s previous novels, there’s a strong aura of mystery and even the supernatural here, as Gothic fiction and modern-day school stories collide in a most satisfying manner.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 1, 2010

The Ghosts of Ashbury High
by Jaclyn Moriarty