Sunday, July 17, 2011
Book Review - Psychological Horror - The Ghost Writer by John Harwood
Although certain elements, i.e., veiled specters, haunted mansions, a porcelain doll that comes to life, and the finding of hidden photographs, for example, of John Harwood’s stylish debut novel (he’s since also written The Séance) could be termed cliché, the story this wonderful book tells is such an old fashioned “ripping good yarn” I didn’t care if he did make use the occasional cliché. And, truth be told, Harwood tells his story in such a fresh and innovative way that nothing about it feels cliché at all.
The Ghost Writer is the story of Gerard Freeman, a lonely, awkward, sexually repressed boy growing up in the 1960s in Mawson, Australia, a little town plagued by millipedes and red dust. An only child with a distant father and few, if any, friends, Gerard finds solace in the stories his mother, Phyllis, tells him of her childhood at Staplefield, an English country estate in the grand manner, an idyllic realm of hawthorns, mayflies, and chaffinches. One day, however, the ten-year-old Gerard, who is given to very serious snooping, discovers a photograph of a beautiful, unknown woman and the manuscript of a ghost story written by someone identified only as “V.H.,” presumably, Gerard’s maternal great-grandmother, Viola Hatherley, who lived and died at Staplefield. Although the discovery only whets Gerard’s appetite for more of Staplefield and Viola, his reclusive and neurotic mother chooses, for reasons unknown to Gerard, to stop talking about both rather than filling Gerard in on all she knows, and this, of course, pretty much guarantees that Gerard, himself, will some day journey to England in search of his mother’s ancestral home.
Gerard’s dreary life seems to brighten a little when he, by chance, obtains a penfriend...in England, of course. Alice Jessell is something of a mystery herself. Injured in the accident that killed both of her parents and confined to a wheelchair, Alice is resolute in her determination to neither meet Gerard nor send him a photo until she’s “cured” and walking again, something that, by her own admission, will require a miracle. How she looks is left to Gerard’s rich imagination, and he conjures images of a voluptuous and seductive pre-Raphaelite beauty with milky skin and cascades of coppery hair.
As Gerard grows into adulthood, his friendship with Alice is a growing constant in his life as is his obsession with Viola and Staplefield. When his mother dies, Gerard, who no longer has anything to live for in Australia, sets off for England in search of Staplefield and Alice, with whom he now fancies himself deeply in love.
Threaded throughout the first person narrative of The Ghost Writer are Gerard’s letters to Alice (and vice versa) and, just as importantly, Viola’s ghost stories, which seem to turn up at the most improbable times and quite by chance. The ghost stories make up approximately one-half of the narrative of The Ghost Writer, and each is written in a distinctive style and voice that is quite different from Gerard’s. The stories are both elegant and genuinely “creepy,” and it’s important to read them carefully for they’re integral to a full understanding of the very convoluted plot of this marvelous book. I felt the pace of the book slowed a little during the telling of the ghost stories, but that might be “just me,” and even if it did slow, I thought the slower pace was “just right.” Overall, I think this is a very well paced book, with extremely good writing and flow throughout.
As Gerard’s investigation of his ancestral roots in England leads him deeper and deeper into a labyrinthine and intricately-constructed web of fact, fiction, and fantasy, the lines that define that fact, fiction, and fantasy begin to blur, just as some of the paintings so integral to this story’s plot blur. This is definitely a story of shapeshifters par excellance. All the signs point toward a macabre and horrendous Hatherley family secret, but at this point, can Gerard really trust even his own reason? And who is the real ghost writer? Is it Viola? Alice? Or is it perhaps Gerard, himself? Like all ghost stories of the highest quality, The Ghost Writer raises more questions than it ultimately answers.
Because of the stories and letters that make up much of the narrative of The Ghost Writer, comparisons with A.S. Byatt’s Possession were, I suppose, inevitable. Although the structure of the two books is certainly similar, the mood and atmosphere of each is totally different. Possession is a story of intertwining loves; The Ghost Writer is, well, a ghost story. It owes far more to Henry James (with even a nod to Dickens’ Miss Havisham) than it does to Byatt. In fact, people very familiar with James’ masterpiece of horror, The Turn of the Screw, may feel The Ghost Writer to be slightly derivative. I wasn’t one; as I mentioned above, I felt Harwood’s material was both fresh and original. Though he's evocative of James, I didn’t find him at all derivative.
Like The Turn of the Screw, however, The Ghost Writer is a very interior—even claustrophobic—book, but, though we are privy to Gerard’s thoughts, Harwood keeps him at arm’s length. I never really felt I got to know Gerard and so had little empathy with him. This didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book in any way, however. In fact, I liked the fact that Harwood resisted the possible urge to psychoanalyze his character and simply gave us a first rate story instead.
There's been much criticism leveled on the ending of this book. No, Harwood doesn’t tie everything up into a neat and pretty package, and this book is definitely intricately plotted, but rest assured, Harwood has played more than fair with his readers. Anyone who’s paid close attention to the narrative will understand the ending and realize the meaning of the clues that have liberally laced the story as well as the “stories-within-the-story.” Enigmatically, while many questions will be raised, all the pieces will simultaneously fall into place.
I loved this stylish, elegant, and erudite ghost story and believe it deserves a far wider readership. It’s psychological horror in the grand tradition of James’ The Turn of the Screw, and horror certainly doesn’t get any better than that. This book, along with Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, are the only books I believe can stand alongside The Turn of the Screw and hold their own. And hold their own, they certainly do.
Recommended: To all who love a “ripping good yarn” told in a stylish and elegant manner. This “genuinely creepy” book is bound to keep readers turning pages far into the night. This would make a first rate book for any book discussion group.