100 Books in 2011: The Ghost Writer

July’s book club book was The Ghost Writer by John Harwood. I was quite looking forward to this as the blurb was quite enticing.

A boy, Gerard, grows up in Australia listening to his mother’s tales of Sussex and her idyllic childhood. One day he finds a story by his great-grandmother and a photograph hidden in his mother’s drawer. She becomes angry and the stories stop. Later he is contacted by Penfriends International and put in touch with Alice Jessell, who lives in Sussex. They write over many years and become very close, a relationship driven by the fact that Gerard doesn’t have friends because his mother is so over-protective.

Eventually, Gerard wants to meet Alice, but she doesn’t as she is disabled and doesn’t want to see him until she has had surgery on her spine. He goes to England anyway, thinking he can find her. He doesn’t but instead finds another story by his great-grandmother published in an anthology. After some years his mother dies. He’s in his early thirties, still living at home, still passionately corresponding with Alice. Along the way he finds more stories by his grandmother. At some point, a woman claiming to be a friend of his aunt writes to say she thinks something terrible happened to his aunt and asking him to go to his mother’s childhood home to investigate. The stories of his grandmother start to bear a resemblance to the events of his mother’s life.
That’s not much of a synopsis and that’s because the plot doesn’t make sense. There are stories within stories, allusions to ghosts and madness, and references to The Turn of the Screw. And none of it really works. The first of the ‘Victorian ghost stories’, Seraphina, is probably the best writing in the book. It has a Poe-esque feel to it and is a little creepy. The rest of the Victorian ghost stories aren’t so good. They lose the tone and end up feeling as though they were constructed to give clues to the mystery. Not that it’s much of a mystery; the misdirection is completely unbelievable. The ending picks up a little and comes close to being exciting but in the end the story is not resolved satisfactorily. The plot holes are massive.
There are loads of great reviews on the interwebs, but I didn’t like it. Neither did most of the book club.

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