23 April 2010

Book Review: The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

The Ghost Writer Growing up in the barren town of Mawson, Gerard Freeman loved to hear his mother tell him stories of her childhood in England - of Staplefield, and country rambles, and her grandmother Viola. But after the day she catches him with the photograph of a dark-haired woman he found in a locked drawer, she never speaks of her past again.

After her death, Gerard becomes intrigued afresh. Her chronic fears about his safety and her warning that one came true appear to have been connected to the ghost stories Viola wrote. Going to England and digging up his family’s past suddenly takes on a new importance - the more so as it will get him closer to his other obsession, pen-friend and epistolary girlfriend Alice Jessell. Soon Gerard realises that his mother isn’t the only woman with an elusive past.

For a while I thought one of Viola’s ghost stories would prove to be some kind of instrument of evil. A haunted ghost story - how great would that have been? But sadly it was not to be. (*Files idea away for future reference*)

Viola’s tales, interleaved into the main story, were my favourite bits of the book. I love a good haunting, and classic ghost stories such as those by M.R. James and Sheridan le Fanu. They’re suitably eerie and convincing imitations of late-Victorian writing, and often their inclusion serves to advance the plot. By reading his great-grandmother’s work, Gerard arrives at some important clues about his family’s past and the meaning of his mother’s warning that “one came true.”

Otherwise, I didn’t like The Ghost Writer as much as I expected I would after having enjoyed The Seance. Gerard takes his time getting the story going; I started to get impatient, wanting him to quit the teenage angst and the sighing over Alice and hurry up with adulthood. When he did, and the mystery-solving began, I was hooked, even though I found Gerard a bit bland. That might have been intentional, the better to show him as the innocent in jeopardy that he became, and probably it was inevitable after such an insular, smothered upbringing. But it still irked me just a little, as did his failure to see a fairly obvious sign that something wasn’t right.

The ending was ... how can I do this without revealing too much? ... not of my favourite sort for this type of story. If not for Viola’s stories I might have felt cheated. And I couldn’t help wondering how it was even possible; how a certain character managed all that they did for as long as they did. The preceding twists and turns, however, made up for the disappointing resolution.

Rating: B


  1. I don't think I've seen anyone who was satisfied with the ending of this book. I actually read it before The Seance and liked Harwood's ideas enough to continue on with his books. I think he is an author that will improve with time.

  2. I'll keep reading his books too - I know what to expect now! And my inner mad scientist is interested in the recurring pattern of technology used for nefarious purposes.


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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776