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Thursday, 10 September 2015

FFB - The Ghost

Robert Harris’ best-seller The Ghost (2007) gripped me from beginning to end. And what a beginning: ‘The moment I heard how McAra died I should have walked away. I can see that now.’

Mike McAra was the political friend and ghost writer of Adam Lang, Britain’s former prime minister. Sadly, McAra’s body was washed up on the American coast. So the unnamed narrator gets the job; it pays well, after all. He felt a slight unease about taking over from the dead man: ‘But I suppose that ghosts and ghost writers go naturally together.’

From that foreboding start, we get sucked in to the claustrophobic millionaire’s holiday home in Martha’s Vineyard, where the narrator meets Lang and his wife Ruth, the devoted fixer, Amelia and assorted bodyguards.
 
The style is deceptively easy, laced with humour, and the odd dash of cynicism and irony. The fictitious publishing company who paid the advance is Rhinehart. It ‘consisted of five ancient firms acquired during a vigorous bout of corporate kleptomania in the nineties. Wrenched out of their Dickensian garrets in Bloomsbury, upsized, downsized, rebranded, renamed, reorganised, modernised and merged, they had finally been dumped in Hounslow…’

The book is set very close to 2007, when Al Qaeda terrorist bombings are not only a real threat, but actual occurrences. There are questions being asked about the extraordinary rendition of four British citizens from Pakistan to Guantanamo Bay, and the use of waterboarding to torture prisoners. The ex-PM is accused of committing an illegal international act, namely authorising the abduction of those four men. So he is being hidden away in Martha’s Vineyard in order to complete his memoires. [Echoes resonate even now, as British so-called IS terrorists are vaporised by a drone’s missiles.]

‘Heathrow the next morning looked like one of those bad science fiction movies set in the near future after the security forces have taken over the state. Two armoured personnel carriers were parked outside the terminal. A dozen men with Rambo machine guns and bad haircuts patrolled inside…’(p41)

Harris is a good observer, giving us splendid description and can turn a good phrase. For example: ‘New England is basically Old England on steroids – wider roads, bigger woods, larger spaces; even the sky seemed huge and glossy.’ (p48) Another excellent example: ‘… passed a marker buoy at the entrance to the channel swinging frantically this way and that as if it was trying to free itself from some underwater monster. Its bell tolled in time with the waves like a funeral chime and the spray flew as vile as witch’s spit.’ (p50)

And he’s not without his humour, either: The bar ‘was decorated to look like the kind of place Captain Ahab might fancy dropping into after a hard day at the harpoon. The seats and tables were made out of old barrels. There were antique seine nets …’ (p95)
 
Insightful writing, too. Read this passage – ‘… it’s curious how helicopter news shots impart to even the most innocent activity the dangerous whiff of criminality.’ – and wonder about the heavy-handed police raid on Sir Cliff Richards’ house, which happened several years later than the publication of this book.
 
Writers too will empathise with the narrator, for obvious reasons: ‘Of all human activities, writing is the one for which it is easiest to find excuses not to begin – the desk’s too big, the desk’s too small, there’s too much noise, there’s too much quiet, it’s too hot, it’s too cold…’ (p180)

Those excerpts give you a little flavour, anyway. The Ghost is well written, in turns amusing, witty, thoughtful and incisive concerning the corruption of power. Despite the fact that we know there wasn’t a prime minister called Adam Lang, his wife Ruth etc., the first person narrative manages to suspend disbelief.
 
If you enjoy the drip-feed of tension rising towards paranoia, then you’ll appreciate this skilfully written novel.

Some of the paperback’s review quotes seem adrift. ‘An unputdownable thriller about corrupt power and sex…’ – the sex is minimal and not graphic in the slightest: the door stays closed.

‘Guaranteed to keep you awake and chuckling after dinner.’ – Does the reviewer usually sleep during dinner? It has many amusing asides and one-liners (as hinted at above), but it isn’t a comedy.

‘… satirical thriller…’ – The thriller elements are minimal, and only evident towards the end. It’s more psychological suspense up to that point.
 
‘Truly thrilling.’ – No, it isn’t. It is tense, however, and most convincing, with an excellent twist at the end.

Highly recommended.

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