John Harwood

"The Ghost Writer"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 30, 2005)

"Ghosts or hallucinations-did it make any difference what you called them?"

One of the most intricate and haunting ghost stories since Turn of the Screw, which it resembles in many ways, The Ghost Writer is captivating, filled with romance, Gothic twists, melodramatic surprises, vibrant imagery, and a series of rich and overlapping stories within stories. Complex and carefully constructed, it is also hugely entertaining, totally involving the reader in good, old-fashioned haunted happenings which turn out to be even eerier than they appear at first.

Young Gerard Hugh Freeman grows up in rural Mawson, Australia, a bleak place that is in marked contrast to Staplefield, the English country house where his mother grew up. Extremely private, she has revealed almost nothing else about her family background, and when Gerard, curious, opens her locked bureau and finds some personal papers, his angry mother refuses to speak about her past at all. Gerard, one the "legions of the lost: the swots, the cowards," eventually finds a pen pal in whom he confides everything, Alice Jessell, a paralyzed English girl whose parents are dead.

Continuing to investigate his mother, Gerard eventually discovers among her belongings an eerie ghost story written by Viola Hatherley, who may or may not be his grandmother, one of four stories she published in "The Chameleon," a short-lived British magazine. As Gerard grows up, he eventually uncovers the remaining three ghost stories by Viola, all as fascinating as the first, and as the reader discovers when these stories are inserted into the novel, the lives of Gerard and his family overlap with the plots of these stories. When he is in his thirties, and still pursing Alice, he finally visits the place in England that appears to be his mother's "Staplefield," and the details of his mother's life suddenly combine with Viola's four vibrant ghost stories to precipitate an intriguing conclusion.

Harwood is a fine writer, giving detailed physical descriptions and creating unforgettable images which reveal similarities among people, surroundings, and events in Viola's four ghost stories. The mystery and suspense begin on the first page, and increase geometrically as Gerard tries to solve his questions while creating even more mysteries. The parallels among the stories and with Gerard's life keep the reader on edge, trying to figure out who Gerard is, how he might fit into these stories, and even whether Gerard's life is a story manipulated by some great, unknown storyteller. Like The Turn of the Screw, this novel leaves the reader with questions--and like that brilliant novel, haunts the reader long after the fun has concluded.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 143 reviews

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About the Author:

author photoJohn Harwood has published works of biography, political journalism, satire, and poetry. The Ghost Writer is his first novel.

He divides his time between London and Victor Harbor, a small town on the coast of South Australia. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014