Family Ghosts

Anna Ruchat

Italian, Ibis, Como, 2023

“One summer’s day in the early eighties, a very poor girl, still young and unworldly, was invited to a German-speaking city in Switzerland for a job interview. For so long she had wanted to get out of the valley where she was born, to meet new people, earn a small sum every month and maybe, later, send some money back home.”

“Giovanni left home at fifteen, he’d left school and moved in with some of his slightly alternative friends, with the intention of starting an apprenticeship with an artisan joiner. Until his mother got hold of him again. If I’d talked to him then, maybe that would have changed our lives.”

Family Ghosts is a novel about a wealthy family who, following an unexpected invitation, find themselves forced to come to terms with their own story and their past. A story that unfolds in two parts (the first set in the 1980s, the second in the present day) and in multiple narratives (third person narration alternates with journals, letters, fragments of ‘dead architecture’, and confessions in the first person), all following a structure that reflects life’s ups and downs: love, hypocrisy, and untellable truths.

Anna Ruchat’s masterful writingdraws us in to a mystery that deepens from the opening pages of Spettri familiari, her latest narrative work – and in fact, her first real novel. As the story unfolds, the mysterious becomes uneasy and ultimately unspeakable. It’s no coincidence that the story starts out like a fairytale, but, naturally, a contemporary fairytale, rich in echoes that are dear to Ruchat as a translator, where the big reveal of the enemy is transformed into the pursuit of an elusive, ghostly villain.

Teresa is the young woman at the centre of the story. In Zurich, she is hired by a wealthy family to look after Giovanni and Pietro, the sons of Bruno, a psychiatrist, and Maria, an archaeologist. Maria also has a daughter, Esther, from a previous marriage that ended with the premature death of her husband. Esther is few years older than Teresa and has already moved out of home. The everyday normality of life is ruptured when the teachers tell Teresa that little Giovanni often displays worrying behaviour at nursery, but they haven’t been able to discuss this with his parents. They ask Teresa to intervene and let them know of any “suspicious behaviour” at home. Already embroiled in a contentious relationship with Esther, Maria’s reaction is fraught with consequences.

This story of a family group in an interior setting is dominated by female figures, with the men always absent, each overshadowed in their own way by the absence of Maria’s husband who suffered an untimely death (a central theme in Anna Ruchat’s work, which always draws on nature and biographical material).

The plot of Spettri familiari unfolds in two separate polyphonic narratives. The first, Matrix, is set in the 1980s, the second, Branches, in the present day. In the opening section, third person narration alternates with journals, letters, fragments of ‘dead architecture’; in the second, the journals are accompanied by confessions in the first person. All following a precise structure, whose rigour casts extra light on life’s ups and downs: love, hypocrisy, and untellable truths.

Text by Massimo Zenari

Spettri familiari
Ibis, Como
Translation rights
Sarah Veronesi,
Publication date
May 2023


Anna Ruchat

Anna Ruchat is a translator and author. Born in Zurich in 1959, she studied Philosophy and German Literature in her home city and in Pavia. Her literary career began with translation, specifically Thomas Bernhard’s Breath and In the Cold (Adelphi). She has translated many German writers, including Paul Celan, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Victor Klemperer, Alexander Kluge, Nelly Sachs, Mariella Mehr and Christine Lavant. Ruchat made her authorial debut in 2004 with the short story collection In questa vita (Casagrande). She has gone on to publish many works, most recently: Gli anni di Nettuno sulla terra (Ibis, 2018), the poetry collection La forza prigioniera (Passigli, 2021) and the novel Spettri familiari (Ibis, 2023). As of 2022 she also teaches German literary translation at FUSP in Rimini.