Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
|Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
|Reviewer: Jacqueline Kay
|Summary: A carefully measured blend of 17th century fact with 21st century fiction, an informative and entertaining read in equal measure, demanding the full attention of an alert reader.
|Date: March 2007
|Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
For the past week or so I have been haunted by scenes from Rebecca Stott's book Ghostwalk: prismatic light reflections in a modern studio and darkened candlelit staircases from a distant past. I keep wondering if I have fully understood it - or whether, if I dip back into it, I will discover things which I missed on my initial reading, as if there might still be a piece or two missing from the jigsaw. It certainly exercises the mind on many different levels.
The novel is a very carefully measured blend of fact and fiction, skilfully prepared and presented in a form to beguile its readers. It had me hooked as I read it.
At a superficial level, it is a modern fictional tale of a series of events set in Cambridge. Stott's characters are completely at home in their time. They travel on real roads, use computers, text one another, keep little secrets from each other, and carry around believable baggage of untidy pasts: careers that haven't taken their intended paths; relationships that haven't quite worked out; and common and not-so-common experiences of the stresses of modern life. The narrator at this level is Doctor Lydia Brooke, writing with the benefit of a couple of years' reflection and hindsight, and addressing her account to her ex-lover, Cameron Brown, a neuroscientist whose work includes use of animals in his research.
Lydia is asked to complete a book, most-parts already written by Cameron Brown's mother, Elizabeth Vogelsang, an obsessive historian who has been found dead in circumstances which are initially not regarded as suspicious. At another level, therefore, there is a "book within the book" in a different voice which starts off as a wholly factual account of a short period in the seventeenth century, focussing on the life of Sir Isaac Newton, his Cambridge contemporaries and his involvement in alchemy at the time of his rapid rise to recognition.
Added to this mix are some sprinklings of Quantum Mechanics - a cunning means of suggesting entanglement between otherwise seemingly disconnected events - and a number of other phenomena with possible supernatural interpretations. As Lydia embarks on her project, following in Elizabeth's footsteps through her research, she finds her own scepticism about such things tested to the limit by her experiences.
This is a book that lends itself to being talked about in intelligent circles. It shows a depth of understanding of cleverness in many forms. I can see it becoming a staple chosen volume for discussion at many a book club meeting as it makes some very original observations and throws up many interesting questions such as: "When does coincidence stretch to improbability?"
At one point in Lydia's narrative, a character asks: "Do you have an open mind, Lydia?" "I don't know," I said. "I really don't know." "Well, that's a good start," she said...
This is one of many snippets of dialogue I find myself still smiling about days after reading the book. I like to think that I have an open mind but I think an intelligent hardened sceptic would also find much to enjoy within its pages.
I was less enthralled than I expected to be by the biographical details of Newton's life, but I think this is perhaps because I was already familiar with many of them, having visited Newton's birthplace and read a biography of him within the last year; perhaps, also, because the style chosen for these sections was so very plain in contrast to its surroundings. At first I felt it didn't live up to my expectations of how the character, Elizabeth Vogelsang, would have written, but on reflection it is in line with her values as a historian being very detailed and accurate.
I often have concerns about books which blur the distinction between fact and fiction but in this instance the divide is very clear and there is a well-written and much appreciated Author's Note at the end of the book which discusses this aspect leaving no doubt as to how the "speculative narrative" was created.
Incidentally I just dipped back into the book for a moment and noticed the dedication at the front. I was right. There was at least one piece of the jigsaw I missed when I first read it. To find out what I'm talking about you'll have to get hold of a copy of the book!
If reading about Isaac Newton in the 17th century has given you a taste for that period, you might also be interested to try Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November by James Sharpe which draws some perspicacious parallels between the 17th and 21st centuries (although without the use of fiction in this case).
You can read more book reviews or buy Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott at Amazon.com.
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I have heard it talked about on the radio and it sounded rather appealing.