November 6, 2009


by John Harwood

Review by S.P. Miskowski

At the age of ten Gerard Freeman sneaks into his mother's bedroom and opens a locked drawer in her dressing table. There he discovers a hidden book and a photograph of a woman he has never seen before. When his mother Phyllis catches him, her reaction is swift and shocking. She attacks and beats him mercilessly, and makes him promise never to go through her things again.

Prior to this incident Gerard and Phyllis shared a dreamy fascination with her childhood home in England. Following the death of her parents, as Phyllis describes it, she was raised by her grandmother on an estate known as Staplefield. Her memories of it are a far cry from the mundane life she leads with her husband and son in the suburbs of Mawson, Australia. Yet she never visits England, and she has no contact with relatives or friends from her childhood. For his part, Gerard has always loved his mother's recollections of the great family estate, which he imagines inheriting some day.

Following the discovery of the photograph Phyllis stops recounting her memories of Staplefield, and an essential part of Gerard's relationship with his mother begins to atrophy. In his loneliness at home and at school, he accepts a letter of invitation to become pen pals with an English girl named Alice, who was both orphaned and crippled by an auto accident. This is the beginning of a deep and abiding friendship that will influence the course of Gerard's life. As he grows closer to Alice through their correspondence, he drifts emotionally further from his mother. But Phyllis' neurotic needs and phobias keep him physically close, stifling his natural impulse to explore the world on his own.

Over the years Gerard traces the history of Phyllis' grandmother Viola, a writer of ghost stories published in obscure limited editions. These tales are filled with generational curses and coincidence. They echo the memories Phyllis shared with Gerard when he was young. They tantalize with the idea of an unobtainable inheritance.

Viola's stories and Alice's letters are expertly woven into The Ghost Writer, together with Gerard's narrative. Parallel images and events resonate and reinforce one another. At times Gerard is not certain what is true history and what is fiction. Stories merge and separate, and reality mirrors what has already taken place in the ghostly tales of his Victorian ancestors.

Over the course of two widely separated visits to England, Gerard attempts to reclaim his mysterious heritage. But his hold on it is slippery, and the more he tries to sort truth from fiction the more menacing the underlying secrets become. Soon he is questioning his mother's veracity and his own sanity in a quest for the truth about Staplefield.

There are many delights to this spooky novel. A few of Viola's tales are worthy of master ghost storyteller M.R. James. They accumulate a disturbing power and stay with you. They blur the line between action and emotional response. They also permit some very impressive sleight of hand to occur while the reader is engrossed in Gerard's spooky adventures.

The narrator's journey toward truth is both physical and psychological. While establishing a plausible storyline, author John Harwood litters the landscape with clues. Some will alert lovers of literary horror and some are simply beautiful reminders that the real purpose of a ghost story is to express through narrative the trembling fear and unspeakable regret buried deep in the human heart.

--S.P. Miskowski

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