by Robert Harris
Published by Simon & Schuster
352 pages, 2007
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
There’s something interesting about writers who write about writing. Robert Harris (Fatherland, Enigma) has done just that with his latest novel, The Ghost. For those expecting Harris’ usual brainy thriller, this might not be the book for you, but if you’re into crisp, clean writing by an author at peak performance, then by all means jump in.
I was completely absorbed by The Ghost, which is, from the look of things, about a ghostwriter writing in the first person about doing his job. That this particular ghostwriter remains unnamed is a cheeky bit of fun. That he’s hired to write the memoirs of Great Britain’s ex-Prime Minister after the first ghostwriter is found dead is the switch that turns this story on.
Right away, this is more than an opportunity for the guy to step into another writer’s shoes (which does sort of creep him out at first). It’s a chance to be a small part of history, a chance to get inside the head of a very Tony Blair-like character and see what makes him tick. It proves as irresistible to the writer as it would be to any number of writers reading this review. But just like that, The Ghost takes a turn, becoming less a fiction about writing than a tale laced with mystery and political intrigue.
How did the first ghost die? And why? Did he simply die, or was it something darker? Quickly, the ghost we’re reading about becomes detective as well as writer, and the story he starts to peel away all around him begins to wind itself ever more tightly, so much so that it could prove deadly.
What I found so captivating here is that Harris comes alarmingly close to throwing the novel away -- on purpose. His writing style is simple, straight, to the point. In fact, it’s so spare that he doesn’t seem to actually do anything more than lay down the story, bit followed by bit. But it only seems that way. Harris’ is a sly style, for in no time you’re there with this unnamed ghost, meeting the PM, his wife, his staff. You pull back the curtain and are a little repelled by what you see. You start to wonder if the first ghost -- whose legacy hangs around like the other kind -- was actually killed. And if that’s the case, does that mean our hero is in grave danger?
But the tension builds so quietly, so beneath the radar, that you almost forget you’re reading. You simply start to notice that you feel a little ... off, a bit nervous. There’s something about the way Harris writes about these people, how he lifts them from narrative characters to human ones, and there’s something about the way he writes about Martha’s Vineyard, where the novel is set (the PM and his entourage have gone there to get away from the world, so he can write). To set the novel there was a cool choice because The Vineyard represents all the odd country starkness of the isolated northeast. It’s a small town that doesn’t take kindly to strange deaths and stranger Brits, no matter how powerful they once were.
In a way, the characters’ professions drive this novel -- how does an ex-PM interact with a ghostwriter, and how does that writer interact with everyone around the ex-PM, including his very Hillary-like wife? But at the same time, those professions, like so much else, are nearly tossed away. We’re in the inner circle with his guy (and being there for 250 pages might be fascinating enough), yet the novel turns its back on all that to tell a wholly different and unexpected story. Harris allows -- even encourages -- his characters to be as screwed up as you and me. The work, while largely incidental, is simply what has drawn them all to this place and into these pages.
With The Ghost, Robert Harris has crafted a new voice. He’s written a novel about writing, certainly, but more importantly about the more powerful story behind the story, and about death -- the death of life, ambition, confusion, ambivalence and even love. How wonderful that this novel so rife with death is, in the end, so undeniably lively. | March 2008
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.