The Ghost Writer (2004) is a clever title, because this novel is not only about ghost stories – it is also about the scripting of someone’s life in a way that is at least analogous to ghosting an autobiography. I’m not going to say any more than that, because this is a mystery story, and I don’t want to spoil it.
Gerard Freeman lives in the fictional town of Mawson (Adelaide?) in South Australia. When he is young, Gerard knows little about his family history, except that his English great grandmother, Violet Hatherley, wrote ghost stories. His excessively protective mother also talks sometimes about her childhood memories of a country house set in an idyllic English countryside. When he finds a photograph of a beautiful young woman hidden in her bedroom, and even more when he begins writing to an English penfriend, his mother stops saying anything about her past, and becomes even more apprehensive about some nebulous danger that threatens the family.
As Gerard grows up, his main solace is his correspondence with his penfriend, Alice Jessell, who becomes his ‘invisible lover’. He tells her about his mother’s paradise lost, and how he would like to recover it. She tells him that the accident that killed her parents has left her unable to walk, but that she is in hope of a cure, and until then, wants only to write to him, ruling out visits or phone calls. The relationship is so important to him that he abides by these rules all through his years at school and university, and even on a brief visit to London after graduation. But when his mother dies, Gerard, now aged thirty-five, resolves to go back to England to find out more about his family history, and to find Alice. Both prove easier said than done.
Three of Violet Hatherley’s ghost stories form part of the novel. The young Gerard finds one in his mother’s room, reads another on his first visit to London, and then finds part of a third story in their house after his mother’s death. These stories are written in the vein of Henry James, where ghosts are an extensions of everyday reality—‘the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy’ as he put it. All three stories deal with obsession, betrayal and death. What if the third story has somehow come true?
Some readers may think that Gerard goes into all this with his eyes wide shut, and certainly his acceptance of Alice’s conditions over so many years seems a bit far fetched. Harwood merely sketches in Gerard’s isolation, his dependence on his relationship with Alice and his virtual obsession with his lost past; we know nothing else about him. But this is a mystery story, not a psychological profile, and my doubts weren’t sufficient to derail my enjoyment of the story. And there are some hints for the reader that all is not as it seems: can it be coincidence that Alice’s name is Jessell, and that Miss Jessel is the predatory ghost in James’s The Turn of the Screw? And wasn’t there another book where someone had great expectations?
While critics rightly note that this is a remarkably assured first novel, it is not the work of a young writer. John Harwood, who is the son of the well known Australian poet Gwen Harwood, is a literary critic and academic of many years standing. His familiarity with Victorian literature has enabled him to produce faux-Victorian ghost stories which sound wonderfully authentic. They are, futhermore, presented in a different voice from that of the narrator Gerard. The writing is simple and direct, though not without telling description. I liked, for example, his picture of London in winter: ‘Half frozen but rabidly adhesive dogshit lurked beneath the slush. The chaffinches had all mutated into scrofulous pigeons’. And if at the end, I did question the central premise of the story, mystery and suspense certainly kept me turning the pages, and that’s the aim of a ghost thriller, isn’t it?
There isn’t much about Harwood on the web, but you can read a review of The Ghost Writer here. His second book, The Séance, came out in 2008, and I will definitely be reading it.