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.

Book Review

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Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!