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When the body of a former British Prime Minister's aide and the Ghost Writer of his memoirs washes up at the side of Martha's Vineyard. With a deadline rapidly approaching a replacement is needed in a hurry and that is where our narrator, an unnamed character comes in. Having spent his life writing about the rich and famous, a move into political circles is a step away from his comfort zone. As the deadline looms he discovers more and more of his predecessor's research and he begins to wonder exactly what the former PM was involved in.
Over the years I've read a number of Robert Harris's other novels and recently came across one of his more recent offerings Ghost. It is perhaps more of a politically motivated novel than his others have been and in fact was written within weeks of Tony Blair's departure as Prime Minister. As with his other novels such as Archangel, Fatherland and Enigma this turned out to be a very interesting and fresh approach to writing a novel. The approach to storytelling is quite fresh and one that I've never come across in this context before.
Of course there are many correlations that can be drawn between the fictional Prime Minister Adam Lang in this book and Tony Blair. It raises some very interesting questions that could just as easily be asked of the Labour government but Harris does it in a very subtle way that makes this book appeal on two fronts. It has firstly a very entertaining story that can be seen as just that but for those that are looking for something a little bit more interesting to get their teeth into it is easy enough to correspond events in the novel with accusations made against our own former PM.
I really felt that Harris developed his characters very well. For instance the Ghost Writer doesn't really need a name but we find out enough personal details about him to generate a mental image of who is telling the story. The real purpose of the ghost writer though is to give us an insight into Harris's real lead character Adam Lang. When I'd first heard about the book I was a little dubious, but with Harris's ability to tell a story he seems to really bring the political world into this fictional state incredibly well. HE builds a good layer of supporting characters around his hidden lead that also add to the interest and intrigue of the plot.
Like with a number of his other novels it seems that someone in Hollywood likes his books as much as I do as this has now been turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan. He has the ability to write very engaging plots that keep the pages turning until you reach the end. He also keeps the plots fresh and adds in some very clever twists and turns that you certainly won't see coming. Unlike a number of Harris's other books though I think he limits his readership a little with the political angle. If you have no interest in politics then this probably is one to avoid as there is a lot of political content, but it does offer a very unique angle on the political aspect that may appeal.
Overall it is a very interesting and thought provoking book that I found myself unable to put down for extended periods of time. It took only a matter of days to read as I was keen to see how each new twist and turn would work out. I felt that Harris managed to keep a subject that might have potentially not worked, fresh and interesting without drowning on with too much politically aimed material. It's a very good thriller that holds your interest and one I certainly wouldn't hesitate to recommend.
The Ghost by Robert Harris
The book revolves around the life of a professional ghost writer who is hired to write an autobiography for a past prime minister and still very active political operator.In order to do this he has to fly to the American resort of Martha's Vineyard in the middle of winter, where all the tourists have left and not much remains open and finish the half completed book in the seclusion of a luxurious house. The previous ghost writer died in mysterious circumstances and the book is left in a pretty bad and un-publishable state. As the story unfolds the ex-prime minster and those closest to him find it harder to keep skeletons in the closet locked up. The interesting question is these skeletons and secrets that surround a political charged atmosphere enough to make people kill one another?
--A great read--
This is the first one of Robert Harris's books I have read, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I'm pleased to report that I enjoyed Harris's storytelling style; the book doesn't exactly take off quickly but rather takes on a slow burning approach. The characters drive a lot of the story along and in my opinion are well written and developed people, some I liked and others made me suspicious of their motives. The first person narrative really lets the reader gain a view of the political characters and political lifestyles and choices that at times reflect more recent political issues. 'The ghost' at points feels quite realistic and makes for an interesting commentary on global and British politics. The twist at the end of the novel, which I cannot possibly spoil, is very well thought out and left me a bit shocked and intrigued at how clever and realistic it could be.
There where parts of Harris's writing that I loved; he has a way of writing beautiful descriptions about the settings that really make a wintry Martha's Vineyard easy to imagine without ever being there. As well as the story, characters and descriptions there were other small touches about the book that I particularly liked, for example, at the beginning of each chapter there was a quotation about the world and life of ghost writing.
I would recommend reading this book if you are after an interesting plot but not an action fuelled barrelling along read, as this is more of a gradually building story with a very good ending. Personally, I really enjoyed this from start to finish and loved some of the descriptions that he so eloquently gives. A great read.
Robert Harris' latest novel has hit the headlines recently as the book has been released as a film starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan and Kim Cattrall.
This sort of political thriller is the sort of book I normally leave on the shelf, but what with the recent Icelandic volcano disrupting my travel plans I was absolutely ravenous for something to read in English and decided on this.
A day later, and I'd finished it. This is a fast-paced romp about an ex-British Prime Minister who has hit the big time in America, making huge amounts of cash from lecture tours, accompanied by his successful, but unpopular wife and loathed by his home country where he once was something of a craze. Fiction, of course.....
It tells the story of an unnamed ghost writer who is brought in to write the former Prime Minister's memoirs after the first one mysteriously dies. Undeterred by this, and apparently not being at all suspicious, our ghost writer steps in to take up the big novel where the last ghost left off. He tells us the story himself, and what happens next is a roller-coaster ride to find out if and why the previous ghost writer died in suspicious circumstances and just why his book is written in the style it was.
I found the novel to unravel pleasingly, as I read it in less than 24 hours and without having to use my brain.
Thanks to its simple plot-line and sense of real tension, it's quite fast-paced, but I thought, this was to the detriment of any characterisation apart from Adam Lang, the prime minister and his wife Ruth. But then, they are all ready fully formed, aren't they?
I was quite pleased that twice, I thought the book had been resolved and was about to end, only to find another couple of climaxes with the finale making me smile.
It's a very atmospheric read, which works well as an attack on Tony Blair and also as an enjoyable political thriller.
Let's get one thing straight, shall we? Robert Harris' latest novel is in no way about Tony and Cherie Blair.
It just happens to be about a British ex-Prime Minister (Adam Lang and absolutely not Tony Blair), his wife, Ruth (certainly not Cherie) and the fallout from his decision to join the War on Terror with America. Any similarities between actual living people are, of course, entirely co-incidental. Into this mix comes the narrator - a ghost writer charged with writing Lang's memoirs who finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy and way over his head.
The Ghost is quite a slow-burning book - a thriller which relies on atmosphere and character more than car chases or gun battles. That makes a really refreshing change in the overcrowded political conspiracy market and gives the book the edge over its more formulaic competitors. And whilst it might be slow-burning and devoid of any action set-pieces, it still has a good narrative pace that sucks you into this murky political world.
The tale is told from the point of view the ghost writer - which gives the book a genuine sense of immediacy, as though we are witnessing the events described first hand. It also allows the main character to be developed over a period of time, so that we really feel as though we get to know him. We have access to his innermost thoughts and fears, his sense of bewilderment and his curiosity. Again, this pulls you into the story and leaves you wanting to find out more.
The other characters are well-fleshed out too. The embattled ex-PM feels vulnerable enough to lend a convincing air to his predicament, yet ruthless enough to be a believable ex-politician. His wife, too, is equally fleshed out so that you can get real insights into her character, her sense of ambition, her pride at what her husband has achieved, whilst also sensing her frustration at being reduced to "the good little wife".
The build up of the main characters is important, because The Ghost is very much a character driven book. The setting is limited to a handful of locations and there are similarly only a few characters. As such, we spend an awful lot of time in the company of Lang, Ruth and the ghost writer. Harris exploits this, proving surprisingly adept at making us emotionally involved with and able to see the perspective of all the characters - however contradictory this might seem at times.
The relationships between the key players feel very real. That's one of the key strengths of The Ghost - it keeps its feet firmly on the ground and always stays within the boundaries of reality. There is almost nothing contained in the book which has not already happened in real life, or which could not conceivably happen. Characters act and interact in a very realistic way so that even when surprising events occur, the characters always react in a way which is in keeping with what you know of them.
Harris also proves very adept at taking what at first sight appears to be a very simple storyline, then gradually adding more and more layers so that it becomes increasingly complex. It's carefully crafted so that there are new discoveries at fairly regular intervals which increase the sense of intrigue and keep you turning the pages. Slow-burning it may be, but the pacing is spot on creating a real sense of mystery and intrigue that leaves you desperate to get to the end to find out how everything is resolved.
Where books like this often fail is in the ending: either it's too obvious so you see it coming well before you reach the end or it is far-fetched, destroying any sense of tension and atmosphere that has been built up. Another common issue is that the identity of the guilty party is revealed too early and the final 50-100 pages become an anti-climax.
Happily, The Ghost avoids these pitfalls. The sense of mystery is maintained more or less right up until the end. With about 40 pages to go, there is a change of pace and an apparent end to the mystery. Yet this first ending only serves to spur events on to even more intriguing levels, introducing a whole new set of dynamics between the characters. A second ending resolves the main mystery and proves both surprising and clever. Although clues have been scattered throughout and you will have some suspicions, it is, nevertheless, a satisfying outcome and the manner of its revelation works well.
Still The Ghost doesn't let up. It has one final trick up its sleeve, which it keeps literally until the final paragraph. This is where the real pay-off comes. The final revelation provides a highly satisfying gut-punch, and - appropriately enough for a book called The Ghost - proves haunting finish.
There are only a couple of potential problems. Firstly, it is rather slow-paced when compared with most political/conspiracy thrillers. About the most exciting thing that happens is a trip on a ferry during a storm! Anyone looking for out and out excitement or thrilling set pieces may get frustrated at the pace.
The other issue relates to the subject matter. Although it never gets bogged down in political ideologies, at the end of the day, this is a book about politics. Inevitably, there is at some discussion of political machinations and this may prove off-putting. The political considerations are limited and only really included where they are vital to the plot, but there still might be too much of it for some. Similarly, the rather obvious parallels between Tony and Cherie Blair and Robin Cook are thinly veiled at times and whilst too much has been made of these, they are sometimes a little clumsily handled
These are minor weaknesses, though and whilst the excellent Archangel remains my favourite Robert Harris book, The Ghost gives it a good run for its money.
Arrow Books, 2008
© SWSt 2009
Alongside the writing of a number of bestselling novels, Robert Harris was, in the early days of Labour's return to power in England, a close associate and firm supporter of Tony Blair. Harris's most recent project, 2007's The Ghost centres around the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister - but not this one. Not quite. Adam Lang is an enigmatic character who has just stepped down from his party leadership, with a powerful but disliked wife and a string of allegations hanging over his head concerning the war he entered in questionable circumstances. Given the author's background, any similarities we can probably take not to be co-incidental.
The novel is narrated in the first person, by an unnamed writer who has been drafted in to finish Lang's much-anticipated autobiography. Unfortunately, the authorship of the memoirs are seen as something of a poisoned chalice; the narrator's predecessor was washed up on a beach of Martha's Vineyard, where Lang is staying during the writing process, some weeks before.
As such, the novel's title has a double reference - our nameless protagonist could be taken to be the Ghost, certainly, insomuch as he is ghost-writing Lang's life story, interviewing him so as to elicit his memories and observations and re-arranging them on paper in an authorly manner. However, the Ghost is just as likely to be Mike McAra, the aforementioned deceased writer who had been handling Lang's book until he had the misfortune of falling off a ferry into stormy waters. McAra's presence hangs over the book, as our narrator is asked to step almost literally into the former's shoes, moving into the room he slept and worked in, where his clothes still hang in the cupboard and his notes clutter the desk.
Of course, the death was simply an unfortunate accident, and the narrator is being paid extremely handsomely to come in, do the job as quickly as possible and slide out as if he were never there. But in a good thriller, it's never that simple. Surrounded by the lingering presence of McAra, our central character cannot resist pursuing the teasing loose ends of the mystery, or probe about in the peculiar inconsistencies that appear to exist in the story Adam Lang is telling him of his life.
In most respects, this is a classic Harris thriller; full of political intrigue, damning buried secrets and elusive characters heavy-laden with potential hidden agendas. However, there are one or two areas in which the author departs from the norm, and the identity of his protagonist is probably chief amongst these. Where Harris tends to use third-person narration, here everything is told strongly from the perspective of this unnamed Ghost-writer. This has the usual effects brought with the choice of storytelling perspective; we get more introspection and analysis than we otherwise might, and the counter-payoff of less action, although Harris makes an effort to keep this side of the story up as much as he can, and we don't get too much less than in his other books.
Additionally, the lack of an identified narrator leaves the role open to interpretation - in many ways, this could well be Harris we are following; and if we pursue this line of thought, the implications of the novel as especially damning on Tony Blair. That said, it's not like Lang is an especially thickly disguised version of the real former PM - the allegations made against him stand equally strongly against Blair however we see the narrator.
For all that this is an effective way of storytelling that enables Harris to get his point across intensely clearly, the novel as an entertaining work of fiction suffers somewhat as a consequence. Because we find out very little about our narrator save for a brief back-story and a momentary introduction to a former girlfriend, it's hard to really invest ourselves too greatly in his plight. It's a strange choice - to have all the insight into a character's mind that a first-person narration allows but then also to have so much about him obscured by the author.
In a sense, this is in keeping with the subject of the book; he's a Ghostwriter, and though he is the author of the memoirs, it's not him people are going to buy it for, and his name won't be plastered across the front cover. He's supposed to be very much a background figure, and the book conveys this effectively. However, it comes at the cost of sacrificing some of the power of the story. Lang, too is a slightly empty character; presumably we are supposed to know the type of individual he is and super-impose Blair's traits onto his, but as a presence on the pages, he exudes a faintly flickering weariness, but little else.
The backdrop provided by the island of Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusets, is an intense, lonely one - a near-deserted summer resort in winter. The isolation lends to the slightly claustrophobic feel of the novel, and we do get a sense of the pressure the narrator is placed under, to get up, interview Lang, write the book and repeat day in and out until finished. What the book occasionally lacks in character, it makes up for in atmosphere.
The pay-off at the climax of the book is a decent one, but it's not a huge shock, and feels a little hollow - because you never really identify with the characters, it's hard to empathise with their personal reactions to the events of the story. The Ghost is a well-constructed novel that certainly keeps the reader interested and provides an enjoyable read, but Harris has written much better when he hasn't had an agenda to pursue.
Robert Harris is an author capable of writing a compelling narrative that is driven by believable characterisations. The characters that Harris writes about are not without their flaws. Unlike the characters of a Dan Brown novel who seem to be experts in all fields of learning and capable of superhuman feats, Harris strive for a realism which allows the reader to some degree relate. The main protagonist of Harris's latest novel, 'The Ghost' spins a tale that is based as much on recent political events in the UK as it is on the author's own fertile imagination. 'The Ghost' is a writer brought in to finish the memoirs of the Tony Blair-esque Adam Lang following the mysterious death of the previous Ghost. The first person narrative allows the reader to gain a view of the political characters in a time similar to our own, the issues of the War on Terror play a large role, how they react and some of their motivations. At times it is a scathing assessment of where the promise of New Labor under Blair went so wrong after the promise of change from the problems of Thatcherism. The most enjoyable thing about this novel is that the menace that at times threatens the narrator is never over the top. You are left to try and decide how much the apparent threat are in the imagination of 'The Ghost'. The twist at the end of the novel, which I will not spoil, is surprisingly chilly and left me genuinely shocked, but also quite enthused with how clever it was. The undercurrent of Tony and Cheri Blair certainly make this an enjoyable commentary on British and global politics, but even without this context the novel is well-written, entertaining and highly enjoyable.