Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood
Harcourt, 2004
Fiction (Horror); 369 pgs

Completed: 07/18/2007
Rating: * (Very Good +)

First Sentence: I first saw the photograph on a hot January afternoon in my mother’s bedroom.

Reason for Reading: This is my 7th selection for the TBR Challenge. My friend Jody read this one back in April, and I had been holding on to an e-mail with her thoughts upon finishing it--I figured I had kept her waiting long enough to share my own.

Comments: The Ghost Writer is one of those novels for which I am afraid to say almost anything for fear of spoiling the story. The story builds on itself with each passing page, weaving a complex and captivating story, each thread having a possible deeper purpose in how the story will eventually play out.

A typical curious young boy, Gerard Freeman, goes searching in his mother’s drawers while she’s away. Her reaction when he discovers a photograph of an unknown woman is extreme and not at all what he expected. Whereas before that moment Gerard was entertained by his mother’s stories of her childhood in the countryside of Staplefield, England, some of the few times his overly anxious mother ever seemed happy, after he heard no more. A wall had built up between him and his mother, one he did not understand and could not breach even into adulthood. And yet Gerard’s curiosity to know his mother’s roots takes him in directions he never could have anticipated.

Joining him on his journey in search of answers to the past is Gerard’s long time pen pal, Alice Jessell, who Gerard began writing to when he was thirteen years old. Their relationship is a unique one. Alice, living in England, is wheelchair bound thanks to an accident that killed her parents. Although Gerard wants to meet her, he is forced to keep his distance at Alice’s insistence. She would rather meet Gerard standing on her own two feet, an event that might never happen. Through letters the two fall in love, sharing their lives with each other in words.

There is also the elderly Abigail Hamish who may have answers Gerard seeks. Her willingness to help Gerard in his quest open many doors for him that might have otherwise been closed.

My favorite piece of the book is the ghost stories written by his great grandmother, Viola Hatherley. It just so happened I seemed to approach these sections just as I was settling into bed for a little reading before falling asleep. While I had no nightmares, the themes of my dreams those nights were quite interesting.

I was most fascinated by the character of Viola, Gerard’s great grandmother. She seemed to having a starring role despite her so few appearances in the novel itself. Through her stories, I felt a better understanding of her, perhaps more so than most of the other characters.

For the most part, the characters do not stand out in such a way as to attract a lot of affection from the reader; however, they are quite interesting in their own ways. Gerard is not an especially warm person and yet I was drawn into his story, came to care about him and cheer him on. Gerard is more the vehicle used to tell the story, the characters taking a backseat to the story itself.

The literary references throughout the novel will give a few well-read readers a thrill. Think Henry James, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens for starters.

Nightmare inducing is not how I would describe this book; eerie, yes. It is in fact . . . haunting. The author pieces together the story in all its various forms, adding new dimensions right up until the very end. The format of the book, which has been described as choppy by some, did not come across that way to me. Each chapter and section flowed smoothly into the next. There were a couple of moments when I groaned out loud because I wanted to know more, but I also understand that the author needed to take me in another direction for a little while. I was fascinated and entranced once the story got moving. I admit to having doubts at the beginning as the story began to unfold. It was with Viola’s first ghost story that I became glued to the book. There was no looking back from there.

Note about the Author: John Harwood in a discussion of his book at Readerville:

Plotting the book: I knew from the beginning that there would be a 20th century narrative framing the ghost stories, but Viola Hatherley came first. I discovered a great freedom in writing in her voice and had finished several stories including ‘The Gift of Flight’ before I began work on what became Gerard’s. So the book grew around the Viola stories; I made a rule for myself that once I’d finished a Viola story, I wasn’t allowed to change it to suit the mystery plot. The book had to adapt to the stories, and so G’s narrative gradually evolved around them.


  1. Ooh, I love reading ghost stories! You really have me hooked with your great review, Wendy! ;)

  2. You, ma'am, are becoming the biggest contributor to my wishlist. Your reviews are wonderful and make me feel like I need to run out and buy the book.

    Of course, that could just be my book buying obsession but I'd rather blame it on you!


  3. This book looks really interesting. I will put it on my list. I love the cover too, yes I judge books this way sometimes and I don't care!

  4. Oooh, I read this last year and LOVED it!!! Although, I recall that I was really confused at the ending, but now I don't remember what it was that confused me. I do remember calling my cousing and begging her to read it so I'd have someone to consult with.

    I wish I remembered now what it was and WE could consult! (My cousin declined. As I recall, she said something like "why would I want to read a book you sound so frustrated about???" Good point.) :)

  5. Sounds like the author was quite taken with Viola's role in the story too. Maybe someday he'll do a book just about her.

  6. I have this one in the stacks somewhere. Sounds so good. I'll have to remember to move it up :)

  7. This is definitely not my 'typical' sort of read, but sounds really, really good! Thanks for the great review, I am making a note of it.

  8. Great review! I've almost bought this a couple of times. I'm not necessarily a fan of ghost stories but it does sound intriguing.

  9. Melody - I hope you will enjoy this one when you get to it. :-)

    CJ - I am behind on my blog hopping and admit to being a little afraid at what new books i may find to add to my wish list. LOL

    Rhinoa - The cover is very attractive, I agree. Nothing wrong with chosing a book by its cover. I sometimes pick a book up to consider based on the cover, although I do have to be sure I'm intersted in what falls underneath before I'll bring it home. :-)

    Lisa - I know what moment in the book you are talking about, Lisa. I had to do a double take to make sure I didn't miss something while I was reading it too.

    Kookie - From the interview I read, it sounded like he started off writing a book about a particular woman from history and she morphed into Viola. Although her presence is throughout the book, Viola is actually not who the book is about. It just feels that way sometimes.

    Iliana - It is worth moving up! I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

    Tara - If you do decide to give it a try, I hope you will like it. It's not like a Stephen King novel--it's more literary. And that is in no way a criticism to Stephen King-he just writes in a different style and a different type of book.

    Chris - It really was. I am glad I finally got around to reading it.

    Tanabata - Do you enjoy mysteries or suspense/thrillers at all? Although the ghost stories play a part throughout the book, this novel is very much a mystery.

  10. It SOUNDS fascinating (and creepy). Thanks for the review!

  11. Ghost stories are not normally the genre of books I read, but this sounds interesting, you do a great job reviewing it.

  12. Carrie - It is creepy in spots, that's for sure. :-)

    Sage - Thank you! I do not read a lot of ghost stories either, but this one caught my eye. If you do decide to try it, I hope you will enjoy it.

  13. I had never heard of this book when I bookmooched it this month. Glad to see I made a good choice. It sounds like it would work well for Carl's RIP challenge int he fall.

  14. What a coincidence, Framed! I think it will make a great choice for the RIP Challenge.


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