In John Harwood’s The Ghost Writer, young Gerard Freeman lives in Mawson, Australia, with his mother. It’s a bleak and menacing place, full of deadly insects and minor annoyances, and it stands in sharp contrast to Staplefield, the beautiful English country house from which his mother has been exiled. One day, the curious little boy is idly looking among his mother’s things, and discovers two items that will change his life: a photograph of a beautiful woman, and an envelope with a short story inside. His mother, catching him in the act, is furious, and the stories of Staplefield stop immediately.
The only thing that makes Gerard’s life bearable is his correspondence, through Penfriends International, with Alice Jessel, a paralyzed and orphaned English girl. They become close friends and then, in a distant way, lovers, though Alice refuses to reveal her whereabouts or to send a picture of herself. Gerard pours out his resentment about his mother to Alice, and his curiosity about her past. When Gerard’s mother dies, he finds out more about her past, some of it through more short stories, apparently written by his great-grandmother, Viola Hatherley. As the stories go on — four of them, cleverly embedded in the novel — Gerard first explains away coincidences. Later, he can no longer deny the effect they appear to be having on his own life. As Alice still refuses to meet him until the time is right, he must negotiate an increasingly confusing and frightening world alone, until the past and the present, the normal and the paranormal, the fictional and the real, blur together into one intense climax.
I had mixed feelings about this novel. I didn’t want to read it at first; I think it came out at the same time as a couple of other books that looked like they’d be wonderful, but were ultimately terribly disappointing (The Historian, anyone? Don’t get me started mumble mumble.) So it may have been guilt by association. But a dear friend recommended this to me as a good read, so I dutifully got it from the library.
I did enjoy it. It was well-written, and with the short stories woven into the plot, reminded me a bit of A.S. Byatt’s Possession (a book I love, by the way.) I had problems with the characterization, though: the narrator was dull and cold, with no sense of humor. His mother was paranoid, angry, and unsympathetic, and the one warm character in the book was dead (odd, but true.) Harwood pulled it off as well as could reasonably be expected, but it didn’t work very well for me. His writing was a bit repetitive in places, but for the most part, he did a good job of building up a genuine sense of spookiness, particularly toward the end. (And one of the short stories could easily stand on its own in any anthology of horror.)
My final cavil, and this one may have tipped the balance for me, was the ending. I am not one to complain about an ambiguous ending, but this one was just ridiculously unlikely. (I’m not talking about the paranormal, here. I can suspend my disbelief that far.) It was as if Harwood wrote a whole Victorian ghost story, complete with spinsters, portraits, galleries, cellars, and all, and wound it up with, say, an Uzi solving his problem. He pole-vaulted over the difficulties, raised no earthly objections to serious obstacles, and came up with a murder method that seemed to me completely laughable. Rewrite the last ten pages, and I’m there with you. Without that, I have to class this among the sillier books I’ve read.
That said, I would probably try his second book, The Seance. For a debut novel, I thought this was multilayered and interesting, and the atmosphere was well-realized, and at least it made me think. Try it and see what you think.