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The Ghost Writer    by John Harwood order for
Ghost Writer
by John Harwood
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2004 (2004)
* *   Reviewed by Martina Bexte

A young Australian lad, Gerard Freeman, loves hearing his mother talk about her idyllic childhood in England. When Gerard asks her if they'll ever return to her beloved manor house, she's fiercely adamant about never setting foot on English soil again. Gerard senses something from his mother's past has terrified her, yet she refuses to talk about it. He's convinced a locked drawer in her bedroom holds the key to the mystery. One day while she's napping he breaks open the drawer, but finds nothing other than a ghost story written by his grandmother, Viola. When his mother discovers what he's done, she rewards him with a sound beating and makes Gerard swear never to rifle through her personal things again.

Twenty years later Gerard is still living at home, taking care of his ailing and increasingly paranoid mother, and working as a librarian. The only bright spot in his boring life is his English 'pen friend', Alice Jessel. She's wheelchair-bound and lives in an institution, yet is so vibrant in her writings and her secret yearnings that Gerard falls in love with her. After his mother's death, he's finally able to look through her belongings, and finds more of Viola's chilling stories. The more he reads, the more Gerard wonders if her supernatural tales are simply that, or clues to his own past. Gerard is finally able to travel to England to meet his love, and his obsession, Alice. But once he arrives at the institution, there's no sign of her. Gerard wonders if he's chasing after a ghost. He spends weeks looking for Alice, but to no avail. He returns home and comes to realize that his long distance and bizarre love affair with Alice is oddly reminiscent of Viola's stories.

This is dark gothic at its best. It begins in the most guileless of ways, through the narratives of an innocent young boy. Throughout the story, Gerard remains naively susceptible to his mother, and to the machinations of his mysterious love interest, Alice. He is increasingly drawn into Viola's chilling tales to the point of obsession. Harwood pulls Gerard, and the reader, ever further into a realm where reality and fantasy, eventually and inevitably, turn into terror. The Ghost Writer is very well done, rich in character and atmosphere, and reminiscent in style and theme of past Victorian masters. Take your time and savour this story -- you won't be disappointed.

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