British and American kiddies know and love Sue Townsend for that essential invention, Adrian Mole, and fans of keen-eyed humor of the nongenuflecting kind could not possibly improve on The Queen and I, Townsend’s hilarious fantasy of the British royal family coping with council-flat life in a newly republicanized England. (Let’s just say Diana would have been much better off losing the tiara.) But where Townsend has written with amusement of the terrors of childhood and its scary adult counterpart—a willful misfit nescience we might call ignorance—these come to the fore with in her latest novel, Ghost Children, as horror and pathos.

The story is constructed like a spiral, originating from an appropriately mysterious and appalling center point: a sack of fetuses discarded in some suburban woods. These nameless, featureless corpses serve as the novel’s unknown soldiers for all the ghost children who haunt the adult characters: Christopher Moore, whose torment over his ex-wife’s very-late-term abortion has made him almost frighteningly paternal; ex-wife Angela, who fled Christopher’s remonstrative glare but married Gregory, a tidy, unimaginative martinet with a ghost child trapped inside him; and the pathetic, repellent teen parents Crackle and Tamara.

The middle-class grown-ups struggle with the children they never had, or almost had, or had and let slip away. Christopher finds the bag of tiny bodies and, in a fit of remorse and tenderness he knows perfectly well is abnormal, takes home a little female one. Neglecting the dog he never much cared for, Christopher props his substitute daughter on the couch and tucks a white sheet around her; only when her presence becomes untenable does he give the baby—whom he has named Catherine after the other aborted girl—a tawdry burial under a flagstone in his back yard. Having been let go from his job and with little to distract him, Christopher becomes obsessed with finding Angela and asking her, in his words, “Why did you kill our baby?”

An electrician made “irrelevant,” as the chilling British term has it, Christopher is bourgeois society on the skids, after the trappings of respectability—educational opportunities, the life of a skilled worker, the joys of family—have betrayed him. It was Angela’s own quest for status goodies that led her to opt out of motherhood with grim relief 27 weeks into her pregnancy. Without telling her husband where she was going, she boarded a bus to a remote site in order to extract the “loathsome parasite” that had turned her into “an animal, with an animal’s responses.”

Angela isn’t evil; the trappings of the Western good life are comfort and refuge for women who trust a husband with a big salary more than they do one with a good heart. With this baby, she would never have had the house and stereo and garden and swank liquor cabinet, and neither would she have had the love of her husband, who was prepping for Catherine’s arrival with unseemly glee. “It was as if you were planning to fall in love with another woman and bring her to live in our house, and share our bed,” she tells him later.

Townsend is flawlessly, heartlessly honest about such undignified truths as a mother’s sexual jealousy of her unborn child. And if there’s something weird about Christopher’s fierce, too-intense paternal instincts, it’s not just because he’s been denied a daughter but because he’s weird and fixated and the fatherliness he longs to express is a symptom of his vanity. Angela and Christopher personify all the little selfishnesses and snobberies that make the nicest middle-class couple utterly unfit for parenthood. The horrible ironies of the way parenthood was denied them—for Christopher, it was snatched from him and destroyed along with his cossetting naivete, while for Angela, the parasite she so wanted excised was accidentally born alive—have led to the hauntings that bring them back together.

Literary ironies are most cutting when unpleasant, and it is the young couple Crackle and Tamara whose successful introduction of babies into the world provides the most painful and horrifying visions of family dynamics in the novel. Violent, unwashed, unemployed, apathetic, and maddeningly stupid, crackhead Crackle and his dyslexic pink-princess-turned-punk-washout Tamara are as undone by having had a baby as Christopher and Angela (and, to a lesser extent, Angela’s respectable new man, Gregory) are by not having had one. Their spindly, underdressed child, named after one of the American Gladiators, shivers in her threadbare stroller and howls on the pissy sheets of her crib, while her parents vaguely fantasize about Snow White’s bluebirds cleaning up the place.

Their inadequacy is repugnant to the social workers and National Health doctors whose work it is to care for such marginal folk; any sympathy for the horror they have perpetrated on themselves and, inexcusably, little Storme, comes sideways, backward, and encrypted. Tamara should have no excuse for turning into a stone-eyed, baby-voiced, mindless adherent to the hard rules of her boyfriend’s existence, until we meet her well-meaning father, Ken. The British social welfare system may have safety nets in place for the likes of Crackle and Tamara, but Townsend argues—again obliquely—that these come too late to mop up after a snobbish and faulty educational system.

But Townsend makes no excuses for the dirty, stubborn kids and their expedient definition of love for their daughter. We are repelled by their willful ignorance and refusal to make accommodations for Storme in their shiftless, impulsive lives. If anything, Townsend’s clear, gentle language and neat, circular story arc accentuate Ghost Children’s expressionistic bitterness. She lets the educated cogs in the social welfare wheel express our (and supposedly her) horrified distaste for the worst of their wards, Crackle and Tamara—but also for the young Angela, to whom the all too accommodating abortion clinic looks like a deus ex machina of the most welcome kind and not the sterile, tear-scented death mill Townsend coldly describes. Christopher’s pent-up love for a daughter, any daughter, is as monstrous as Angela’s unwillingness to confer love on a child or the teen couple’s scattershot definition of parental care. The results of these sins of omission and commission by the grown-up fiends who prowl Ghost Children’s haunted terrain can be found not only in the bloody metaphor of the sack of pink corpses but in the character Gregory, whose brush-mustached rectitude has made him look the fool to the sensual, animalistic would-be parents around him. But Gregory is the product of such attitudes and as such the most poignant citizen of this yearning purgatory of unfulfillment. In the climax, a tender, absurd tightening of the novel’s strings into a macabre macrame of half-families, it’s the unlucky Gregory who gets a proper childhood at last, albeit at a grotesque price.

Townsend’s attitude toward all this unpleasantness isn’t clear. Ghost Children is haunting and determinedly unlyrical, but its bitter indictment of its subjects—abortion, yuppie striving, skewed parental urges, accidental parenthood, having children, not having children—suggests this is an exorcism of some kind for its author. But what kind? While she argues against attitudes, institutions, and what she sees as volatile modern freedoms, Townsend offers no mollifying alternative possibilities. For all its acrid ferocity, Ghost Children offers a very strange proposition—nihilism for the good of the children.