Growing up in small-town Australia, Gerard Freeman was raised on his mother's stories of her idyllic childhood on an English estate called Staplefield. But after he discovers concrete clues to that past an old photograph and a manuscript hidden in her bedroom, the reminiscences end. And that's where the mystery begins in John Harwood's intriguing debut novel, The Ghost Writer, which will make you shiver despite the summer heat.

Confused by his mother's steadfast and sudden refusal to speak of the past, lonely, bookish Gerard finds comfort in the unexpected arrival of a pen-pal letter from a paralyzed orphan girl named Alice Jessell. As they exchange letters, their friendship grows into a courtship of sorts, marred only by the fact that Alice refuses to think of meeting while she is still paralyzed. Years pass, and Gerard attends college and takes a job as a librarian while waiting for Alice to recuperate, a goal that always remains just out of reach. After his mother dies, Gerard finds the manuscript she had refused to let him read, and realizes that the home and family in his great-grandmother Viola's Gothic ghost story bear a striking resemblance to those in his mother's own tales. He advertises in a London newspaper for information about her family, the Hatherleys, and an elderly woman claiming to be the heir to their estate invites him to come and look through the home his mother abandoned. What he finds there challenges everything he believes about the people closest to him.

Harwood's atmospheric debut is reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's Possession as it weaves Viola's turn-of-the-century horror stories into the main narrative. Parallels appear between these tales and the clues Gerard uncovers about his mother's past, and the line separating fact and fiction is blurred as the novel reaches its chilling climax. More than just a literary thriller, The Ghost Writer is also a tale of the intoxicating pleasures of reading and writing and the danger that comes from always trusting the narrator.

 

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