Monday, October 20, 2008

R.I.P. Challenge Review: The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

A novelist who hopes to dazzle readers with an ingenious surprise ending walks a fine line between impressing them with his cleverness or thoroughly confusing them. In my opinion, John Harwood crossed that line with his muddled denouement in The Ghost Writer (which is a shame, as the book was otherwise well-written, absorbing and spooky).

I think I have the ending pieced together, but I had to read an online discussion of the novel to figure out exactly what happened. I also looked at several reviews and found I was not the only reader scratching my head.

I enjoy it when authors leave something to the reader’s imagination, but deciphering Harwood's ending was too much like work, with few clues offered to fill the holes in the plot. After a superb buildup, the ending seemed truncated. If any book ever screamed for an epilogue, this one did.

The novel is narrated by Gerard, an introverted librarian living in Australia. Gerard grows up under the thumb of his domineering, overly fearful mother, who insists she is protecting him from some unknown danger. Gerard’s only happy memories of his mother are of her stories about her idyllic childhood in the English countryside. But after she catches him snooping in her bedroom dresser, her stories abruptly cease.

Gerard’s only friend is his English pen pal, Alice, with whom he falls passionately in love. Alice is an orphan who uses a wheelchair after being paralyzed in a car accident. She refuses to let Gerard visit her, saying she does not want him to meet her until she can walk again. When Gerard’s mother dies, Gerard travels to England to find Alice and to seek the truth about his mother’s family history.

Interspersed throughout the novel are short stories written by Gerard’s great-grandmother, Viola, which Gerard keeps discovering. These stories were truly creepy. Written in a distinctive voice quite different from Gerard's, they successfully evoked Victorian Gothic tales. Viola’s stories were my favorite parts of the novel (although one of them, the longest and potentially most intriguing of all, was left unfinished.)

Harwood excelled at creating atmosphere. The entire book had the feeling of an old-fashioned ghost story from the 18th or 19th century, despite its modern-day setting. (The atmosphere was so effective, it was jarring to encounter references to airplanes, computers and e-mail.)

Alert readers will figure out that Alice is not who she says she is, and that Gerard’s mother has plenty of family skeletons in her closet, long before the hapless narrator does. Often, Gerard seemed too credulous, even for a sheltered, unsociable man. However, Harwood created plenty of palpable suspense. I longed for Gerard to untangle all the mysteries and was quite disappointed in the end.

If Harwood learns to better handle his endings, he will be a writer to watch. His new novel, The Séance, comes out next February.

My grade: B-

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