The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer was another great recommendation from Salon, many of the books I’m reading come from their recommended list and I have to say that they get it right more often than not. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for what it was and it didn’t bring about any thoughts about anything in my life or the world around it, which is probably a relief to you, my reader 🙂 Alas, this is a book that’s very hard to discuss without giving out its “secret” so I’m going to do it. If you haven’t read the book, don’t read this “review”, read Salon’s and then get the book yourself.
Anyway, the Ghost Writer is about a Gerard, boy who lives with his mother in some little town in Australia. His mother loves to talk about her life growing up in a mansion in England, but she’s very dodgy about the details. After he, as a young curious boy, breaks into a drawer in her room and discovers a ghost story written by her grandma and a picture of her, the mother never talks about her childhood again. About this time, he also starts a correspondence with a pen friend named Alice, a little girl who’s lost her parents and the use of her legs in an accident and who writes to him from a rehabilitation home, much like the house her mother grew up in, also in England.
As he grows up, he eschews normal relationships in favor of his friendship (which has turned into a romance) with Alice, alas she refuses to let him see her until she can walk again, which happens by the end of the story. He also becomes more and more fascinated about his family secrets, all the more after his mother dies and after much searching he finds another story by his great-grandmother. Before she died, his mother had said a few words on her sleep about her great-grandmother, that she wrote ghost stories “and one of them came true”.
I’m not a huge fan of ghost stories per se, I love horror movies but I have never particularly sought after ghost stories. I had to read The Turn of the Screw in college and found it painfully boring. Probably my problems with the genre go back to the fact that I’m a lazy reader, I like to read action or dialogue and grow quickly bored with descriptions which I like to skim. So much of these books is about atmosphere that skimming them pretty much ruins the effect – that this didn’t happen in this book, by the end of it I was genuninely frightened, says much about the powerful writing style of Mr. Harwood.
But even though the book contains four ghost stories in it – all delicious and progressively scarier -, the book itself is not a ghost story. The reader is supposed to believe it is, mostly based on the advanced press and other reviews of the book, but also based on the admonition by the mother “one of them came true“, and by the end of the story Gerard himself is almost convinced that there are ghosts (but his skepticism, rather than annoy us should guide us – why are we so ready to accept supernatural explanations for things when more parrochial explanations would do?). But there aren’t (and here comes the spoiler, stop reading!), instead he’s been the object of the cruelest of jokes by his previously unknown and ravingly mad aunt Anne.
After his mother dies, Gerard puts an ad in a British paper asking for information on his mother. He receives a letter from a woman who tells him that she was the best friend of his mother’s sister, Anne. His mother had always claimed to be an only child, so this came to a big shock to him. The letter detailed how Anne and Phyllis (Gerard’s mother) had been orphaned as children and brought up by their grandmother Viola (the writer of ghost stories) and their aunt Iris. When Anne was 21 or so she became engaged to a young man, and then suddenly broke the engagement. Her grandmother had already died and soon after her aunt did as well. Before she died, Iris had disinherited Phyllis and passed on the house to Anne. Soon after Anne made a will leaving all her property to her friend (the letter writer) and then promptly disappeared. The friend hadn’t heard anything about her in over forty years. She suggested that Gerard went to London, look into the old house and try to find out what happened.
Gerard rushes to London, figuring he can kill to birds with one stone, figured out he mystery of his family and finally meet Alice, the love of his life. In addition to looking at the house, he does a lot of research at the records office and finds out about births and deaths in his family, interesting enough there are no birth or death certificates for Alice and her parents, as well as no notices of the accident. He’s suspicious, though he hangs to the possibility that they are from Scotland. There is also no death certificate for Anne, though there is a birth certificate for another Gerard, a baby born to his mother who died in infancy. He had been guided to look for it by what he is then suspecting to have been a ghost.
Most of his enquiries take place in the old, laberynthical, abandoned mansion, where after much prying – he’s by now an expert in finding hidden cabinets and recesses – he finds another ghost story by Viola, some of her letters as well as some of the missing pages to another of her ghost stories and finally, Anne’s diary. Through all of this, we find out that Anne has come across her grandmother’s story, written (I think) before they were born (or when they were very little) and is beginning to be frightened by the parallels between the story and her own life. In the story, two orphaned sisters grow up in a large house with their aunt and uncle, and Cordelia, the older, is given a strange legacy consisting of the paintings of her grandmother’s lover. A lawyer is sent to make sure they are being kept well, they fall in love but their love turns tragic when he becomes obsessed by one of the paintings and at the same time falls for her sister. Anne sees herself as Cordelia, even more so when the young man who comes to value the paintings at their home has a name starting with the same initial as Cordelia’s boyfriend. She starts a relationship with him and they duely become betrohed. Then, according to her diary at least, she starts to suspect that the story’s tale of betrayal is also paralleling her life, and finally finds that her sister is having an affair with her boyfriend.
Reading all of this, Gerard comes to the unpleasant conclussion that his mother killed her sister Anne, though I’m not exactly sure why he thinks so. I have to admit that by the end of the book I was so tired that I was skimming more than usual. In addition, I was rushing to get to the end, too frightened and too curious to go to sleep without a conclussion. I don’t think I fell asleep until well after 1 AM. So if I get the details of the end wrong, you will have to excuse me. If you’ve read the book and care to comment by all means do so.
Anyway, Gerard finds himself in the house one more time, hearing voices, having faining spells and so on. Finally he ends up being locked in the basement where he reads what are claimed to be Anne’s last words, written on the finale to the ghost story. Anne claims that she has been locked in the basement by her sister Phillys and left to die there. You have to wonder, then, where her corpse is.
In any case, Gerard manages to figure out a way to escape but ends up in a frightening confrontation with what appears to be a ghost. I skimmed these last pages, but basically what I think happens is that the ghost is actually Anne. For many years she has been working on her revenge against Phillys. Apparently, when Anne’s suspicions of Phyllis affair with her boyfriend grew, she decided to kill her (or injure her) in the most grotesque manner. Her grandfather had obtained a contraption that worked as an early X-ray machine. Alas, it produced terrible radiation and machines of that type had been responsible for the deaths and burnings of many people by then. So Anne put the contraption in the panelling between their two rooms and connected it to Phyllis’ night lamp. When Phyllis turned it on to read in bed, the contraption would turn on and she would start being exposed to the radiation. Anne’s bed was on the other side of the panelling, but she knew to keep away from her bed when the light in her sister’s room was on. Alas, one night the light bulb blue off but the machine stayed on. Anne went to sleep on her bed and received all the radiation, which caused her terrible problems and years of rehabilitation. Phyllis, meanwhile, wasn’t in her room as she was sleeping with Anne’s boyfriend.
When Anne discovered what happened she went crazy (if she wasn’t already). She killed her boyfriend (thoughs he claims he fell down the stairs) and probably buried him in the basement. Phyllis, pregnant by then, didn’t know anything and continued looking for him. We don’t know what drove Phyllis to leave the house, or when exactly she did. She had her baby and the baby died (of neumonia, according to Anne, but who knows!). At some point Phyllis must have realized what Anne had done or that she had gone crazy and had fled to live a quiet life in Australia, where she remained always in fear that something would happened. Or maybe it wasn’t Anne she feared but ghosts.
Meanwhile Anne’s revenge wasn’t done. By her own admission she didn’t go after her sister because her fear and exile was punishment enough, instead she took it out on her nephew. Pretending to be a pen-friend, Alice, she befriended him and betwitched him for years, keeping him away from any chance of friendship and love. Then, prettending to be that friend whose personality she probably took over as soon as she left her house, she wrote to him and sent him on that chase for family secrets which would end up with her pretending to be a ghost and frightening him almost to death.
Anyway, it was great. What I don’t understand is how this could be Harwood’s first novel. I saw his picture on the flap, this is not a young guy. What has he been doing all these years? Did it take him forever to finish this novel or has he been wasting his talent on non-fiction and poetry all along? I can only hope he’ll be quicker with his next offering.

The Hamilton Case

“The Hamilton Case” was another book I picked up after reading the Salon review. It’s about the life of a Ceylonese lawyer and it’s first told as an autobiography, later as a straight omniscient-writer narrative and finally as a letter from an acquaintance. Salon sold the book as a mystery (which is why I picked it up), but the mysteries in the book were minor and relatively unimportant. Not necessarily to the narrative, but to the reader. Ultimately we don’t really care who killed Hamilton.
“The Hamilton Case” was not an easy book for me to read. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a lazy reader (I’m a lazy everything), and that I don’t want to concentrate in every word as a clue to the action. But if you don’t in this book, you run the risk of missing important pieces of the puzzle of Sam’s (the protagonist) life. That’s because the author mostly hints about things, or states them so furtively that they’re easy to overlook. For example, by the end of the book I’m left with the impression that Sam molested his sister, but I don’t really know that. I’m also unable to judge what exactly happened with baby Leo, and what did it mean to the future relationship between Sam and his sister Claudia. So heed my advise, if you read this book, do it slowly and pay attention.
Still, there were many things I liked about the book. For one, it introduced me in an intimate, and openly biased and incompletely manner, to a culture I know almost nothing about. A trip to the UC Berkeley library is in order, not only to pick up a book about the cultural revolution in China but now one on Sri Lankan history.
The distance with which the author kept Sam bothered me somewhat, as I felt I never could get inside the man. Apparently, however, neither could he. His struggle to see himself and present himself a certain way precluded self-understanding, something that hit home. His fear of being judged had made him very judgemental (and therefore unpleasant), a trait I unfortunately share with him. Still, Sam was mostly a very lonely man. I didn’t grasp enough about the myteries of his youth to understand wholy as to why. Did his mother reject him after she thought that he’d killed the baby? Or had she reject him anyway, not being much of the motherly type? Were his issues, rather, brought on by the strange nature of a boy’s school, where little kids are set off to compete with one another and more sensitive kids, who can’t grasp the social game or don’t have the skills to play it, are forever left behind? If you judge just by the talk shows, it seems the slights of youth can be so deep as to completely define us as adults.
Most of the characters in this book were disagreeable and unpleasant, and yet when they encountered their comeuppances (mostly the loneliness of being rejected by those they had been too self-involved to reach earlier in life) I couldn’t but feel sorry for them. Self-involvement is a horrible thing, but so is loneliness. And yet, how could it be any other way? The harshness of the characters obviously came from hurt and their main flaws were that they were too weak, and had been too alone, to get over them.
The end of the book brought on a different and somewhat unconnected delight, the observation that we are prone to interpret life in literary terms. Years before Hamilton, a British farmer, had been murdered and the explanations that Sam and others came up with were unconsiously straight out of the mystery novels, they themselves delighted on. Maybe it’s not so much that life imitates art, as that our interpretations of life are influenced by our exposure to art.
In all, I enjoyed the book though even reading as I did it, it was work. Still, I think the images and thoughts of Sam and his family will remain with me for a long time.