Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

The Ghost Writer
John Harwood
Harcourt (2004) 369 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

The Ghost Writer is fun, often quite compelling, and I enjoyed it, just as have readers in the UK (where it was originally published). The writing is usually smooth and masterful, and Harwood, a distinguished scholar, journalist and poet shows by example ways in which it's often best for a writer to wait until middle age before publishing a debut novel. It's about a ghost, yes, in fact a few of them; and while it is not a "horror" novel (it's far too elegant and literary for that embossed-paperback cover epithet), it's not "Victorian" either, as some reviewers would have it. In fact, to call it "Victorian" shows how few Victorian novels one has actually read—and this one's quite readable for a very broad spectrum of the English-speaking audience. But yes, it's written convincingly within that tradition in many ways, and this is quite refreshing.

This is actually two books: first, the story of a young man named Gerald who grows up with his semi-crazy mother in Australia and emigrates to England after her death in his early twenties to find Alice (his childhood pen-pal, with whom he's kept up a voluminous correspondence) and look for clues to his mother's enigmatic childhood. Of course the two reasons are inexorably intertwined, and Harwood knows we know it—actually a neo-Edwardian mystery novelist, he has enough of an inner Dame Agatha to drop clues all around the text (some red herrings and many not), making the reader participate in a these-days-quite-unique enjoyable experience.

Second, The Ghost Writer is a sequence of "tales", ghost stories and fragments of ghost stories written, we think, by Gerard's great-grandmother Viola.

These form the book-within-the book and like "The Mousetrap" offer the clues and red herrings, and give the overall narrative its real poignancy, from the moment Gerard registers his mother's horror at his having found one in the bottom drawer of her desk while still a small child. And the comparison to Hamlet is apt: Viola, of whom the reader grows faintly fond, is actually pretty good, though she tends to be overly fond of giving her characters Shakespearean names: Beatrice, Frederick, Julia, Cordelia, Imogen... Harry... almost all of them, in fact. Clues? It depends, in a way, on how much you know about Henry Irving and the English theatrical world of the 1890s, but this is not necessary, for although Harwood does a good deal of winking at the reader with names and allusions, he is never pretentious in this regard and always smooth, but subtly underscores that this is a fairly literate entertainment. The full name of the main offstage character, for instance, will ring a bell with anyone likely to pick up this book. And contrasted with the flush of young writer/teachers publishing books these days full of Literary Allusions, one or two of which I treated like Edward II in the Tower of London in the last issue (get it?), this fun is refreshing indeed.

It's also refreshing that Viola's style is so distinct from Gerard's—, which I don't like, or think I'm particularly intended to—in fact, I hoped the bugger got veritably murdered by e-mails from dead people or something! Yet Viola's style, though it has had its influence on the love-missives I send out nightly to people I don't know in the flesh, is updated suitably for a contemporary audience while retaining the impression of an innocent naïveté. The historical facts are accurate so far as I can remember from growing up reading the stuff Gerard eventually finds in Viola's library, but one more word and I'm in Spoiler Territory and there I will not tread with a book as—okay, charming as this.

The only real problem I had with The Ghost Writer, aside from the inevitable and increasingly tiring jolts from Viola's increasingly hinted past, was the closure—or rather, the novel's last fifty pages. Harwood had to tie up loose ends, and while he covers remarkably well by putting forth his narrative as a series of riffs on old novelistic clichés, the "shock" is not all that "shocking." No, I didn't "see it coming," but one feels its essence enough to have to squelch the urge to read ahead a bit and just get it over with.

For a real horror or mystery novelist, that appraisal would be positively damning, but not so here. In fact, one may wish to re-read it, actually, with the eyes of the ghost(s)—because what becomes of Gerard is an anti-climax about as silly as he is, and ultimately he, like the book, is small beer indeed compared to what the book is really about.

Which is? Well, I guess you'll have to read the book now.


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