Ghost Writer

The last book of our crime and mystery fiction book discussion season was The Ghost Writerby John Harwood.  For me, it was the ideal way to go out–with a bang.  Or a whiteboard.

Once before my book discussion group encounter a convoluted novel with an enormous character list and it required me to use the dry markers on the whiteboard (in multiple colors) in order to chart out all the relationships in the novel over the multitude of time periods in the book.  The novel was A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson–a great novel but just a tad challenging to remember enough of the details to have an intelligent conversation.

 Now we have another whiteboard novel:  The Ghost Writerby John Harwood.  Harwood is an Australian writer of poetry, literary criticism and novels.  He is the son of one of Australia’s most important poets, Gwen Harwood.  This novel is imbued with poetry as well as literary references and allusions that make it a very special work indeed.

But the cool part is that the lead character in this novel is Gerard Freeman, a mousy librarian.  Wait,–no.  That is not the cool part.  In fact, there is very little that is cool about Gerard.  Why would an Australian boy maintain a pen pal relationship with a quadriplegic woman in England into his manhood despite a failed attempt to visit her made difficult by her refusal to see him until she is cured?  I would suggest that is something you need to discuss with your book group.

The real cool part is that Gerard has a mother who shares stories of her childhood that spin a fantasy around a Manderley-like home in England that may or may not be true.  When Gerard decides to challenge his mother’s version of her life, she shuts down completely and tries to keep him from England.  Wait,–that is not the cool part either although the mysterious drama that these stories create give the book a spooky turn.

When Gerard finds the manuscripts of his mother’s mother, Viola, and begins to read her short stories–that is when the cool part really starts.  The gift that Harwood gives anyone who reads this novel is the main story of the book also includes these wonderful ghost stories full of characters torn apart by circumstances that seem to echo the family history of the Freemans and, perhaps, even predict events to come.

A spectacular combination of many different literary styles, this book had so many stories, so many characters and so many themes we had to resort to charing them out on the whiteboard.  But, the proof of the power of this novel was in the fact that everyone wanted to do it.  Each reader needed to know how this book was supposed to affect them while our discussion drew out of them the very information that they thought they did not have. 

For our last of the year, it was as great book discussion.  If you choose to use this title with your group, I can only wish you the same.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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