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Monday, June 18, 2007

"Ghostwalk" by Rebecca Stott

Read An Excerpt HERE

Ghostwalk” may be Rebecca Stott’s debut novel, but she’s hardly a novice writer. Not only does Ms. Stott have a Master of Arts and a PhD from York University, but she’s currently a Professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and has completed several books on writing, academics (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Victorian) and non-fiction (Charles Darwin, oysters). While “Ghostwalk” has been available in the UK since March 2007 courtesy of Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Orion, I didn’t hear about the book until recently when I discovered it was a launch title (May 2007) for new U.S. publishing company Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. Coupled with the mostly positive reviews that I’ve seen of the book, and of course its intriguing premise, I was looking forward to reading Ms. Stott’sGhostwalk” and for the most part it doesn’t disappoint.

Bridging the gap between the past and present, fact and fiction, “Ghostwalk” is basically Lydia Brooke’s personal confession to lover Cameron Brown. Told in a first-person narrative, “Ghostwalk” starts with the death of Cameron’s mother Elizabeth Vogelsang, which is the catalyst for Lydia’s return back to Cambridge where she eventually agrees to finish writing Elizabeth’s book “The Alchemist” and from there becomes entangled in a mystery that dates back to the seventeenth century. Throw in animal activists, a series of unexplained murders & animal killings, an affair, ghosts and a possible controversial conspiracy surrounding Isaac Newton, and you have the fundamental elements of “Ghostwalk”.

Based on the above premise, I was expecting something along the lines of Dan Brown’sThe Da Vinci Code”, Elizabeth Kostova’sThe Historian” or the countless other likewise historical thriller-mysteries out there. So, even though “Ghostwalk” plays around with a famous figure from the past and mysteries abound, I was instead reminded more of Nicholas Christopher’sThe Bestiary”, which I recently reviewed HERE. Like “The Bestiary”, “Ghostwalk” is more of a personal journey of the heart and mind rather than a pulse-pounding suspense story. Unlike “The Bestiary”, “Ghostwalk” doesn’t quite succeed at every level. For starters, I felt that there were too many different elements in “Ghostwalk” – romance, murder mystery, historical fiction and the supernatural – which were never fully developed or felt comfortable with one another. For instance, what romance can be found in the book is largely ambiguous and I had a hard time believing in the attraction between Lydia & Cameron. As far as the mysteries involved, Ms. Stott does a good job of drawing the reader in and spinning a web of intrigue, but the actual payoff was rather underwhelming and not all that hard to decipher. I did think there were a couple of nice surprises toward the end of the book, though nothing jaw-dropping. Of the supernatural elements, there’s truthfully very little of it even though it’s an important part of the story, which is why I was somewhat disappointed by the vague explanation offered by Ms. Stott involving quantum physics. I won’t get into specifics, but I thought this area of the book could have been handled better, especially the ending where certain events get a bit out of hand and which some readers might find hard to swallow.

About the only areas where “Ghostwalk” really excels at is the writing and the historical aspects. Regarding the latter, Isaac Newton, particularly his alchemical roots, is a fascinating subject and Ms. Stott’s research is quite thorough – numerous texts are referenced, actual illustrations are utilized, the line between what is real and what is not is brilliantly blurred. In fact, in the author’s note Ms. Stott clarifies what historical information is truth and what is speculation, which makes “Ghostwalk” even more interesting though I recommend reading that after you’ve finished the novel. The only issue I had with this portion of the book was that the historical parts would sometimes overshadow the rest of the novel, and with certain information, like the chapters excerpted from “The Alchemist”, it felt too much like reading a textbook.

Going back to the former, I really appreciate good writing and Ms. Stott delivers that in spades. Prose is elegant and poetic, the allegorical expressions are quite breathtaking, and the first-person viewpoint of Lydia has a unique flair since she is mainly addressing Cameron. Sure, there are weak spots. For example, the pacing of the book is uneven, at times overly slow, the narrative occasionally switches to third-person without any apparent reason, the book tends to meander, and the characterization was a bit shallow in my opinion – as well conceived as Lydia and company are, I never emotionally connected with any of the characters and didn’t really care what happened to them. Despite these issues, the overall quality of the writing and the thought-provoking speculations that Ms. Stott investigates were more than enough for me to overlook these minor deficiencies.

As a whole, Rebecca Stott’s first work of fiction is a somewhat disjointed affair that works better in some areas than in others. Personally, the intellectual exploration of Isaac Newton and 17th century England, and the author’s impressive writing were enough to make me want to finish “Ghostwalk” as quickly as possible, but some readers may be turned off by the lack of emotional resonance found in the book or the promise of romance, mysteries and supernatural thrills that are never fully delivered. In truth, I think “Ghostwalk” is one of those books that will praised by critics, fellow writers and anyone who likes cerebral literature, while the more casual reader may find the novel a bit wanting from an entertainment standpoint. For me, “Ghostwalk” was not nearly as captivating as Nicholas Christopher’sThe Bestiary”, which in my mind is a perfect example of how a book of this ilk should work, but I enjoyed the novel enough that I’ll definitely be checking out Ms. Stott’s next release, “The Coral Thief”, described by the author as “Ocean’s Eleven meets Rousseau’s Confessions”…

(NOTE: I featured the UK cover because I personally like it better. The U.S. version is included in the body of the review)

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