Sunday, 10 January 2010

Review of Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott

Below is a review I wrote of the paperback edition of Rebecca Stott’s novel Ghostwalk.  Readers’ opinions since Ghostwalk’s publication have been polarised, some praising the book for its rich, evocative, slow-burning qualities, rather more criticising it for its tedious convoluted style and two-dimensional characters. While I can see both sides, I think it is clear in which camp I fall.

A review of Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott

“…for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.”

Ghostwalk ( 2007) is Rebecca Stott’s first novel and is obviously intended as a calling card. But just as calling cards often seem to buckle under the weight of the author’s aspirations, so Ghostwalk constantly reminds us that Rebecca Stott is an intellectual who has graced us with a weighty novel, full of ideas, superbly executed. Unfortunately the most brilliant ideas - and this book certainly isn’t packed with them - are wasted if the execution is as misjudged as it is here.

The plot: an historian, Elizabeth, who is writing a biography of Sir Isaac Newton, focusing particularly on his activities as an alchemist, is found, drowned and clutching a glass prism, by her son, Cameron, a neuroscientist who does animal experiments. He asks Lydia Brooke to finish the manuscript, essentially become a ghost writer. Cameron, who is married, had had an affair with Lydia and she had moved to Brighton to escape, but now she is back she cannot resist his brilliance and smouldering good looks, nor his captivating text messages. Besides, there is this bloke in her Brighton flat she doesn’t like any more- his main sin seems to be that he is handy round the house so not an intellectual - and staying on in Cambridge will give her a chance to get rid of him.

So she moves into Elizabeth’s house by the river, next to the apple orchard, but soon finds that Elizabeth’s book was no ordinary biography, and that the seventeenth century is not as far away as you might think, with suspicious deaths echoed from one period to the other. Meanwhile animal activists in the area are becoming increasingly violent, leading to animal mutilation and murder. A strange butch one-eyed psychic from Prickwillow seems to know more than she is telling, a woman with the unlikely moniker of Will Burroughs (feeling a bit cut up) has been wandering in and out of Elizabeth‘s house without anybody noticing. Are all these seemingly disparate threads connected in some mind-bending way? You betcha.

The book’s historical aspect has been extremely well researched, but rather than follow the adage of doing the research, and then throwing it away before writing the novel, Stott has crammed in as much of it as possible. She uses the device of incorporating chunks of Elizabeth’s manuscript, which enables her to show off her scholarship; not many novels have footnotes. But while such background adds to the texture, it does not feel adequately integrated. At least readers who might not pick up a book on the politics of seventeenth century glass making or on alchemical networks will take some knowledge away.

Unfortunately novels full of ideas are nullified if the framework within which they are expressed is poorly constructed and peopled by characters in whom we cannot believe. Stott’s are paper thin and veer well into cliché. Charismatic Cameron has an amazing capacity for running multiple affairs and a high-powered career (actually more than one career as it turns out) which would exhaust a lesser - or a real - man, while Lydia is supposed to be one of those feisty independent women who actually shows herself to be masochistically drippy by being helplessly drawn to a man who treats her badly.

These are characters from stock romantic fiction (which I expect Stott only reads on the beach) masquerading as profound. The dialogue too is unlikely. Even in the rarefied atmosphere of Cambridge it is hard to believe that people speak in this elliptical style. And does anybody really use the word “goddam” any more? Lydia is a curious anti-heroine, a passive cipher. Yet there is a similar rhythm to the names - Lydia Brooke, Rebecca Stottt. Does Lydia stand in for Rebecca? Perhaps this is a wish-fulfilment fantasy but as Lydia is written, or anyway comes across, as an unsympathetic creation, one hopes not.

It is hard to tell whether this approach is post-modern or cack-handed. Perhaps, as the story is mostly told from the perspective of “me, Lydia Brooke” (she helpfully tells herself - and therefore us - her own name, at the beginning, a good example of creaky style which aspiring novelists are hopefully warned against on creative writing courses) it is Lydia rather than Stott who can’t get a grip on characterisation, reflecting her self-absorption. If so it is brilliant technique, but feels laboured when drawn out across 320 pages.

Turning from character to plot, the book is full of implausibilities. Why does nobody, for example, ask what animal liberationists would harm animals? There is a cleverly revealed twist, but it’s only unforeseen because the conspiracy element surrounding this aspect of the novel just wouldn’t happen so in real life. Also, would one person working in laboratory really be able to keep an extremely valuable formula secret from his colleagues and sponsors? One suspects that Stott’s experience of scientific research is less extensive than that of working in historical archives (the treatment of entanglement theory feels as if it has been lifted from a Wikipedia entry). Why, after having made the deal not to divulge the key chapter of the original MS that had been missing for the length of the book and now conveniently turns up just in time for the climax, does Lydia photocopy it and give it to Cameron when there was no need? Could she not foresee that this would lead to trouble? Doing so allows a symmetrical pattern to play itself out, but only at the cost of coherence.

Appropriately for a book so absorbed with seventeenth century Cambridge, it revels in baroque accretions, with Stott throwing a huge variety of strands into the mix to show us her erudition. Sometimes these are skilfully inserted; having the house next to an apple orchard subliminally connects to forbidden knowledge. A motif focusing on eyes, seeing or not seeing or being fooled, comments obliquely on the mystery. Phrasing at the close seems to echo Burnt Norton (T.S. Eliot‘s Collected Poems 1909-1962 appears in the list of ‘suggested further reading' with which we are supplied to enrich our understanding of Stott‘s novel), appropriate for a story that shifts in time. Elsewhere the reader is banged over the head with allusions which are usually meaningful but not exactly subtle.

Thus water is a motif so we have to be told that Virginia Woolf drowned herself (to imply that Lydia has a room of her own?). The book starts with a nod to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier (Elizabeth drowning while wearing red and being pulled out by her son, reversing DLN’s father pulling out daughter, even though one death is an accident, the other - something else?). It concludes with further references to Venice, where Lydia and Cameron are supposed to be going for an illicit break. During the course of the novel Lydia has seen reflections on the walls in Elizabeth’s house which seem to emanate mysteriously from the glass works that once occupied the spot, and this parallels the reflections on walls created by water in Venetian canals.

At the end of the novel Lydia has a dream which seems to echo the conclusion of Don’t Look Now, with her running around an ancient city, with canals, in the dark. There are rats, a child in a red coat crying… On the glass aspect, we have a Sergeant Cuff (as in The Moonstone) now a minor character at present day Parkside police station, presumably to hint self-consciously at another mystery involving a sparkly substance. Whether such allusions signify anything other than the author’s wide reading is open to question. At least Stott didn’t give Lydia tattoos, but then Lydia does not come across as any kind of encyclopaedia.

The reference to The Moonstone is not a happy one. If this is supposed to be a thriller, it may hold the record as the slowest in the genre, though these decisions often owe more to the marketing department than the author. The pace is glacial, and the denouement not quite as clever as it would like to believe. The paranormal element rings hollow and Stott’s attempt to bring a seventeenth-century character into the present day fatally undermines the sense of the uncanny she has so carefully contrived. If he can do that, why didn’t he just do it before, got rid of the bits of evidence around which the plot hinges and saved everyone, particularly Elizabeth, a lot of grief. Actually, as it transpires that much of the supposed evidence for the seventeenth century crimes is drawn from mediumistic communications one wonders why he was bothered as other historians would have just laughed.

Stott does have something interesting to say about places as palimpsests, the new being imposed on the old but the old showing through. She is also good on describing places. Yet rather than play to her strengths she dilutes the excellent idea of building a story round Newton’s unlikely snagging of a Trinity Fellowship by trying to cram too much in. The result is that the narrative comes unstuck. A story set entirely in the seventeenth century might have worked much better.

To reinforce the impression that this is a Significant Novel, suggestions for book club discussions are included. That seems conceited, and, like the Cambridge milieu in which Lydia moves, and which Stott writes about well, there is an air or smugness in it. I ended the book feeling that it wasn’t written because of an urgent need to say something about the world, past or present, but as a career-building move away from non-fiction and into creative writing. It is hard to maintain an interest in Lydia, Cameron, or any of the minor characters who circle around them. One gets a feel for the geography of contemporary Cambridge, which Stott knows, being a resident, but the people in it lie inert, incapable of a chemical reaction. Perhaps Stott sees herself as an alchemist of words. If so, she has taken materials of gold and made of them something surprisingly dull.

PS On 10 April 2010 I attended a very enjoyable discussion on "Writing History" organised as part of Cambridge Wordfest, which had Hilary Mantel, Anna Whitelock, Malcolm Gaskill and Rebecca Stott debating the relationship between writing history and writing historical fiction. The issue of doing thorough research when producing the latter came up, and the two novelists agreed that for them the research was like an iceberg, with most of it invisible to the reader. Stott stressed the huge amount she does - for her most recent novel (The Coral Thief), for example, she clainmed to have read every diary written by every young man visiting Paris in 1815, of which it would seem there are more than you might think. Perhaps my verdict on Ghostwalk, that it was crammed with research to the detriment of the plot, was unfair. This was probably only the tip of her iceberg, it was just a rather large iceberg, Titanic-sized in fact.

PPS The Cambridge News of 8 December 2010, p.13, carried an article on something called "The Cambridgeshire Book of the Decade", the shortlist for which had been announced. The aim of the competition was to find the best book written by someone living in Cambridgeshire, or which was set in the county, and published between January 2000 and December 2009. There were ten titles on the list, one of which was Ghostwalk.

The judges who compiled the shortlist were drawn from the sponsors, plus sundry others. One of the sponsors, and hence supplying a judge, was Anglia Ruskin University, where Rebecca Stott taught until her move to the University of East Anglia to teach creative writing. The judge in question was unnamed in the article, but was apparently Laura Dietz, who currently teaches on ARU’s Creative Writing MA.

One of the sundry others was Cambridge University's Gillian Beer, who knows Stott. For example they both acted as literary consultants on a Darwin project at the Fitzwilliam Museum, spoke at a conference on Darwin, Tennyson and their Readers at Anglia Ruskin in late 2009, and are patrons of Cambridge Wordfest. Dietz is on the Wordfest steering group. Another Book of the Decade judge was Cathy Moore, who happens to be director of Wordfest. Beer also enthusiastically rated Stott’s 2012 Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists as Book of the Week in the Sunday Telegraph, 6 May 2012.

Literary culture in Cambridge seems to be rather tight-knight, with the potential for a conflict of interest. Fortunately though, the Canbridge Book of the Decade winner was chosen by members of the public rather than a clique, and announced on 15 December 2010. It was Saumya Balsari’s The Cambridge Curry Club.