The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Gerard Freeman has grown up in Mawson, Australia, listening to his mother’s tales of her own childhood at Staplefield, a country estate in England. However, when she finds him going through her private papers one day she is furious and from that moment she refuses to say any more about her past.

Gerard continues to investigate his mother’s background and is intrigued when he discovers some ghost stories written by his great-grandmother, Viola Hatherley. Unable to talk to his mother about his discoveries, the only person Gerard can confide in is his English penpal, Alice Jessel. It’s only as Gerard grows older and uncovers more of his family history that he begins to understand the full significance of Viola’s stories and how they relate to his own life.

The Ghost Writer was published in 2004 and seems to have been very popular at the time of its publication, yet I somehow hadn’t even heard of it until I picked it up in the library a couple of weeks ago and thought it sounded perfect for the R.I.P. challenge and for this time of year. And it was a perfect choice – I was very impressed by this book. The closest comparison I can make is to Possession by A.S. Byatt. Both books are very well written and have similar structures, with different sections written in different styles and with letters and stories woven into the plot. I did find this an easier and more entertaining read than Possession, though, and at times it also reminded me of The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.

Viola Hatherley’s ghost stories were my favourite parts of the novel. They were very creepy and I could really believe they’d been written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I loved the way the ghost stories were connected to Gerard’s own story and yet they would have been good enough to stand alone as a separate short story collection too. Often when I read a book containing stories-within-stories I find myself becoming impatient and wanting to get back to the main plot, but not this time! There were four of Viola’s stories included in the book (one, The Revenant, is much longer than the other three and almost a novella). The highlight for me was The Gift of Flight, with its descriptions of a sinister doll-like child and a mysterious fog that fills the reading room at the British Museum.

Looking through some other reviews of this book, I’ve noticed that a lot of readers felt let down by the ending. I don’t usually mind being left to make up my own mind at the end of a book, but I can definitely understand why people would be disappointed by the way this one ended. It was very ambiguous and left so much open to interpretation. Despite the ending though, there were so many other things to love about this book: the elegant writing, the intricate plot, the clever structure, the gothic atmosphere, the eerie, unsettling mood and most of all, those excellent Victorian-style ghost stories!

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11 thoughts on “The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

  1. FleurFisher says:

    I have a copy of this one tucked away and I am very tempted to pull it out. The stories within the main story sound wonderful, and I like an ending that leaves a little room to think.

  2. Arabella says:

    Your review has made me want to seek this title out. I must admit to a fondness to the work of A.S. Byatt so the comparision with Possesion has me interested. I also like the sound of the ghost stories within another story.

  3. Mae says:

    Oh, I LOVED this book!! The ending quite confused me but I think it added to the overall creepiness and *wrongness* of the whole story. It was quite grotesque. The Seance is a good read but I think this is much stronger.

    • Helen says:

      It confused me too and even after thinking about it for a while I’m not sure I completely understood everything. I agree that it did add to the creepy feel of the story though!

  4. Virginie M says:

    I had such a great time reading this book, it really spooked me actually ! Ever since I finished it i have been desperately trying to find other books like this one !
    I read “The Seance” which was pretty good too but I was not as smitten as I was with “The Ghost Writer” !

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