Just towards the end of Penelope Fitzgerald's brilliant new novel, the reader is treated to a ghost-story, told in the manner of M R James. It is the harrowing tale of an 1870s archaeological dig in a field near Cambridge, on the site of an ancient nunnery dedicated to St Salome ('the Virgin Mary's midwife'). This site – now resembling a double-row of piggeries – appears, at first glance, unremarkable, but it nevertheless has a nasty effect on one of the academics, who starts to relive the fate of a 15th-century commissioner sent to evict the nuns. 'In, in, in. Under, under, under,' he hears women intone repeatedly (when there is, of course, nobody there). After he experiences a highly traumatic encounter with a hole in a wall (which in later life he would never discuss), we learn that in the course of excavation, the skeleton of the 15th- century commissioner was duly found. 'It appeared to have been crushed and rolled up and then stretched or elongated.' The body had been inserted, it seems, inch by inch into a culvert. And it had probably still been alive at the time.
Like genuine M R James stories, Fitzgerald's pastiche daintily sets