Book Review

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The Ghost, by Robert Harris

Even though I have seen the dramatised version of this story—I think it was a made-for-TV film, rather than a general release film or a TV serial—it was a while ago; unfortunately, the book, which was published in 2007, doesn’t mention this, so I’m guessing that it could have been at least five years since it was on TV, if not more, hence I can’t remember a lot about it. It is interesting to speculate if the publication date was chosen to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the election victory of the prime minister on whom the story is clearly based; or it could have been a complete coincidence. The premise is that a successful British ghostwriter is brought in, somewhat in spite of his own reservations, to complete the ‘autobiography’, or memoirs, of ex-prime minister Adam Lang, who is living temporarily in some seclusion in the Martha’s Vineyard residence of an American philanthropist, while the book is written. Unfortunately, Mike McAra, the former colleague of Lang who was writing the book for him, disappears, presumed drowned, from a ferry travelling back to the American mainland, hence the importation of the unnamed writer [he’s a ghost: geddit?] after a somewhat unconvincing interview process: more of a foregone conclusion.

He very quickly realises that all is not well in the Lang camp, but at first he’s not sure why. He can see that there are tensions between Lang and his wife, Ruth, who is arguably the more intellectually gifted of the pair, but chooses to stay in the background most of the time; she does make volubly clear her frustrations at being cooped up in back of beyond New England, however. A revelation that Lang could be indicted by the International Criminal Court [ICC] for complicity, while in office, in handing over four alleged Al Quaeda members, who were snatched in Pakistan, to the CIA for rendition & torture, during which one of the victims died, contributes to an exacerbation of the paranoia already felt by Lang, and an increase in the unease of the ghost about what he’s allowed himself to become involved with. He’s uncertain about how much he should trust Ruth Lang: she clearly adores her husband, but she appears to be concerned that all might not be right with him, mentally: there is a suggestion of the onset of dementia, and during a walk à deux on the nearby beach, Ruth confides in the writer that Lang seems lost, after having literally lost power, with the sense of impotence that this can bring about, but he can’t move on: he’s stuck—they’re both stuck. Unfortunately, the writer’s doubts about Ruth’s stability don’t help his concerns about his suitability for the task, either: “It was as if some tiny mechanism was missing from her brain: the bit that told you how to behave naturally with other people.”

For me, it goes without saying that a Robert Harris novel will be enjoyable, despite only having read a few hitherto; how much of his own opinion is incorporated in the story is debatable, but he writes convincingly, albeit in the voice of one of the main characters, about how beholden to the USA Britain has become, and the detailing of the many ways in which this is demonstrably true, as a result of action taken during the premiership of this fictional politician, clearly mirroring the one on which the story is based, is scarily accurate. There is a lot more I could say about this story, which reveals Harris’s analysis of the geopolitical landscape, but I don’t want to reveal more of the plot, because it is a very enjoyable read, with sufficient tension to retain the reader’s attention; there is also a neat little sting in the tail. This is a nice little conceit of a well established & demonstrably good writer casting himself in the rôle of a successful writer who dismisses the work of a bad writer [the original author]! There are also swipes at celebrity culture, and the hollowness of the trappings of power. The paperback edition I read was published in 2008 by Arrow Books, London [Hutchinson, 2007], ISBN 978-0-09-952749-7.

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