Rebecca Stott's "Ghostwalk" suggests a powerful connection between the past and the present. After historian Elizabeth Vogelsang is found drowned under mysterious circumstances, writer Lydia Brooke agrees to finish Vogelsang's manuscript about Isaac Newton. When she moves into Elizabeth's home to conduct her research, Lydia is shaken by a series of bizarre occurrences. Although the idea seems preposterous, Lydia begins to suspect that, for some inexplicable reason a spirit from the past may want to stop her from completing the book.
The story is told in flashback. Lydia, the first person narrator, is apparently recovering from a severe shock. By putting her thoughts in order, she may be attempting to clarify whatever happened that made her suddenly start believing in the supernatural. As a result of her work on Elizabeth's manuscript, Lydia realizes that the past can never completely be laid to rest. It is "like a stain in an old stone wall that seeps through the plaster." Elizabeth was immersed in the seventeenth century, and something or someone from that century may have killed her.
This story has three interwoven threads: one is the tangled relationship between Lydia and Elizabeth's son, Cameron. In spite of the fact that he is married, Cameron is a philanderer who has a long romantic history with Lydia. Although she left him before, Lydia cannot bring herself to reject Cameron when he reenters her life. The second is a series of ever-escalating attacks allegedly carried out by animal rights activists against Cameron (a neuroscientist and a fellow of Trinity College) and his colleagues, all of whom engage in animal experimentation. The third deals with Elizabeth's inquiries into Newton's life and work. Newton desired fame and recognition, but his prospects, at first, were dim. Could he have resorted to murder to achieve his goals? As Lydia tries to make sense of Elizabeth's fragmented notes, she learns about a mysterious Mr. F, who may be the key to understanding exactly what happened centuries ago.
"Ghostwalk" is well-researched, with marvelous passages about glassmaking, alchemy, and the sights and smells of Cambridge in 1664. The mystery is a bit jumbled, especially the tenuous link between deaths that occurred hundreds of years ago and those in the present. Stott juxtaposes realism with fantasy, and at times, the two coexist with difficulty. Nonetheless, Stott is a compelling storyteller, and she effectively moves her narrative along, using foreshadowing to prepare the reader for the strange developments to come.
The characters are all well-drawn. Cameron is a fanatic about his work and his dedication may have led him to make unwise choices. He is also a man who has grown comfortable with lying. Lydia is a brilliant and intuitive woman who will need great strength and courage to handle the many difficulties that thwart her at ever turn. Dilys Kite is a half-blind medium who helps both Elizabeth and Lydia communicate with people "from the other side." She is amusing in the way that she refers to ghosts as if they are standing right next to her, and her expertise proves invaluable to Lydia. Will Burroughs is a lovely and secretive young woman who may have more information about what is going on than she is willing to reveal.
Although this is an ambitious, provocative, and intriguing novel, it falters a bit at the end. Unexpected developments distort the plot so much that a willing suspension of disbelief becomes extremely difficult. Still, "Ghostwalk" is worth reading for its lyrical writing and the author's intriguing perspective on Newton's life and times. It is "the dark history buried beneath the myth of a great man."
on September 11, 2008
I won't go over the plot, because it has been stated, but there is indeed a good basic story here and that is what kept me reading LONG after I wanted to put the book down. I finally skimmed the second half, which is a shame, because the author can indeed turn a lovely phrase.
Any powerful writing by the author, however, gets lost in her many literary devices; devices which do not serve the story, but rather hinder it. The worst device is her annoying use of the second person point of view which serves no purpose except to distance the reader from the story. I felt like an interloper eavesdropping on the conversation between the narrator and her lover. When the writer switched to third person, it really pulled me out of the story. Not exactly the "suspension of disbelief" which fiction aims for. Other counterproductive literary devices included flashbacks embedded within flashbacks and way, way overwrought symbolism.
I also found it irritating that the narrator was so aloof and "above it all." I felt no sympathy for her, no emotional connection. Although we know her thoughts, we are not privy to her feelings. My gosh--she is being haunted by ghosts--can't we have a wee bit of terror? She accepts the haunting as if it were the morning dew on the grass.
Would I buy this book again? No. Read only if you are into literature which is written for its own sake, rather than with a reader in mind.
The great work of alchemy is both the subject and the controlling metaphor for this novel. Lydia Brooke takes on the task of ghost-writing the last chapters and final draft of a study of Isaac Newton's involvement with alchemy written by her friend, Elizabeth Vogelsang (also the mother of her former lover.) Initially Lydia sees the major elements of that process as Elizabeth's existing research and writing on Newton and the author's ideas about where the study was going, ideas that must be recovered from notes and conversations with Elizabeth's friends. The work is undertaken in Elizabeth's studio, a veritable retort of a space, all glass and light - air bright with sun and fire, the earth of an apple orchard all around, and the river on the margins.
The reader soon realizes what Lydia refuses to recognize: Elizabeth's son, Cameron Brown, Lydia's lover for a decade past, is a major element of the process in the studio. So the process she is consciously working on is not the process actually in motion. Lydia is not the alchemist here; that is Elizabeth - or, more precisely, the historical past. Lydia and Cameron are the elements in the chemical marriage. The really brilliant decision to narrate the novel as first-person directly addressed to Cameron underscores this.
But for the great work to succeed, the elements and the adept must be pure, a point Stott makes with the Isaac Newton material. No one is pure in this novel. Lydia lies to herself, to her friends, to Cameron, lies unnecessarily, casually almost. Cameron lies enormously, to everyone, and cheats cruelly, as well as undertaking a truly wicked course of action. And yet, perhaps the most impure element here is Elizabeth - as a metaphor for the past -- whose unexplained death opens the book.
Although the past intrudes, sometimes violently, the novel isn't actually a time-slip, insofar as we are not taken back to the 17th century. But there are long passages from Elizabeth's manuscript describing life for Newton in Cambridge of the 1660s. One reviewer here objects to that, but the novel is about perspective - Elizabeth's and Lydia's as well as Newton's. Putting the reader unproblematically into the past wouldn't work here; it needs to be mediated, since the work of writing is all about mediating reality.
As I read the book, I did wonder about the decision to market it as a thriller. It has very frightening moments and a number of people die violent deaths. On those grounds, yes, it is a thriller. But thrillers as a genre are not especially intellectual, generally relying more on action than introspection (says I, their constant reader.) This book requires thinking. But it rewards even the lightest efforts with a vast array of gifts - the history of glass-making, life during the plague years, glimpses into the alchemical work of writing itself, college politics in the rarified air of Trinity during Newton's time, a powerful love story and the tattered edges of a massive moral dilemma, the fascinating Stourbridge Fair pulling goods and betters from all over Europe through the dark maze of Fen canals to the very edge of Cambridge.
What I most admire most about the novel is the exquisite blend of science and beyond-science, both in the specifics of the book Lydia is completing and in the things that happen to her in and around the studio. The constant text messages provide an elegant present-tense example of time and space being magiced away. The characters, as other reviewers note, are wonderfully drawn. But almost as great is my admiration for the places Stott chooses not to go. She uses the animal-rights people, but she doesn't let that powerful topic pull her off-target. And resisting both the lure and the considerable marketing value of the Rosicrucians and other esoteric secret societies is positively heroic.
Talking with my friends, I divide books into two categories: Good Books and murder mysteries. They read Good Books, mostly, best sellers and Booker Prize winners and the things that people talk about at dinner parties. I read murder mysteries and thrillers.
With Stott's novel, I find that I have accidentally read a Good Book.
Weaving the 17th century of Isaac Newton with contemporary England, Stott mixes past and present in a heady brew of scholarship, an illicit affair and the insidious threat that defines the current age of terrorism. In 17th century Cambridge, soon after the return of the plague and the Great Fire of London in 1666, Newton pursues his experiments, his scientific interest married to alchemy: earth, water, fire, space and air transmutable to create all forms of matter. It is impossible to separate the two, critically dependent on information from "European secret societies, Freemasons and alchemists, groups of men in the Hague and in London, Cambridge and Paris". The secrets of the universe are at stake, the belief that the essence of life can be reduced to one invaluable formula. Science and alchemy are natural bedfellows in this century of experimentation, where nature's great secrets slowly yield to perseverance and dedication, certain groups charged with the safe-keeping of such powerful knowledge.
Modern day Cambridge is the repository of such arcane details. Elizabeth Vogelsang has dedicated years of her life to the study of Newton's accomplishments and is on the verge of an explosive discovery that will shock academia, tracking his movements like a modern day detective through the 17th century, identifying his close associates, questioning their loyalty to the cause and the mysterious deaths of five people at Trinity College. When Elizabeth is found dead near her cottage, the Studio, it is her son, Cameron Brown, who discovers the body. Since Elizabeth's book on Newton and alchemy is nearly finished, Cameron asks his former lover, Lydia Brooke, to ghostwrite the final chapters, so that his mother's work may not be in vain. Lydia moves into the Studio, the affair rekindled, even though Cameron is married and has no intention of ever leaving his wife.
The relationship becomes a sort of haunting, Lydia wandering through Elizabeth's alchemic world, awakening to Cameron but equally seduced by the unfinished chapters. Cameron's work is shrouded in mystery. A Doctor of Neuroscience and a Cambridge Fellow, Brown has recently made a breakthrough discovery that carries sinister ramifications depending on the application. A series of attacks by animal rights activists have been focused on the scientific community, increasingly violent acts threatening Brown and his family. Even Lydia is at risk as recent events snap the story back into the present.
As Lydia's carefully constructed corner of academia is threatened by real world issues and she suspects Cameron's involvement in darker deeds, the centuries merge, three deaths in Cambridge begging for comparison with those in Trinity long ago. In the language of love, tempered with the reality of serious harm, Lydia floats between two worlds, submerged in Elizabeth's intentions, while vainly attempting to remain neutral about her life with Cameron. Their love imbues the novel with otherworldliness, Newton's secrets contrasted with the sweet seduction of romance and the incipience of violence. With a facility for time travel, the author renders this strange mixture of past and present believable and tragic. Luan Gaines/ 2007.
on June 10, 2007
Rebecca Stott is certainly a competent writer and it is clear a lot of research went into this book. Plotwise, it had potential, but ultimately "Ghostwalk" proved to be more frustrating than compelling or interesting. I did not care for the narrative structure the author chose to use to tell the story. As some of the other reviewers have mentioned, Stott has her protagonist, Lydia Brooke, recount her story as if she is writing it to her married lover Cameron Brown. I found it annoying to be reading phrases such as "and then you did this" or "then you said that" when Lydia is recalling times they were together.
Another problem I had with "Ghostwalk" is that I never felt emotionally invested in the characters. I never saw Lydia and Cameron as soulmates whose grand passion somehow justified their behavior. I'm curious as to whether the author even wanted or expected the reader to like Lydia or Cameron. I did have some sympathy for Lydia, as she at least ended the relationship for awhile, but Cameron never emerged as likeable. In fact, as the reader only sees Cameron through Lydia's eyes, he remains pretty much an enigma.
I did enjoy reading about Newton's experiments with light and color, but overall the historical element of the story never really came to life. The present day animal rights storyline was interesting, but it could, and probably should, have been developed at greater length. While the plot of "Ghostwalk", with its overlapping present and past storylines sounded intriguing, it wasn't executed in a compelling way.
I was attracted to this book for a couple reasons. First, it is a first novel and I am always trying to support new writers. Second, as readers of some of my other reviews are likely aware, I am a former teacher of math and physics who is a great admirer of Newton. So how could I resist a novel about Newton? Even a novel that puts Newton at the center of multiple murders.
Of course, it is clear from early on that Ms. Scott has a larger purpose in this book. She is not only writing a novel of romance and mystery paralleled through centuries, she is trying to spell out an historically-based theory about a series of real (possible) murders that took place in Cambridge starting in the 1660's while Newton was trying to secure a place at Trinity College. I will not ruin the suspense by spelling out what Ms. Scott thinks she has discovered but it's intriguing and it's not necessarily what the reader might expect. She weaves real historical documents throughout her novel and provides a summary of some of the important papers at the end of the book. The reader can draw his own conclusion but it's pretty clear where Ms. Scott's sympathies lie.
In fact, it's Ms. Scott's apparent real-life sympathies that nearly derail her novel. She has a powerful premise and she builds a nice plot around it. Her protagonist, Lydia, is ghostwriting a book about Newton for an author who has died under mysterious circumstances. As she reads the manuscript on which she's working Ms. Scott is able to easily weave in the history she wants us to see. To add to the complications, she restarts an affair with the married son of the dead author. If she does jump around in time a little bit; well, in general, her stylized prose is up to the task of keeping us involved.
It is the subplot concerning an animal rights activist group which is linked to a multi-national corporation conspiracy theory which nearly threw me. I got the feeling that Ms. Scott was trying to hammer home a thesis that experimenting on and/or killing animals for food is wrong. Not necessarily a bad thing; however, when combined with her illustration of Newton's involvement in alchemy (true, and interesting), her pseudo-scientific use of entanglement, and the fact that no science or scientist is shown in a good light in this novel made me a bit uncomfortable. She may be trying to make a particular point about scientific ethics but, with all that's going on in this novel, any specific point is lost. It's muddied and unclear, leaving an undertone of anti-science rhetoric which is worrisome to me.
Still, there are many pleasures to be had in this novel. And her conclusions about Cambridge in the 1660's are worthy of consideration. The rest of her plots and subplots in this book are merely and excuse to draw her conclusions and she handles it all fairly well. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.
Ghostwalk is Rebecca Scott's debut novel which combines both fact and fiction. Ghostwalk is set in present day and the 17th century Cambridge, that mixes a beautiful love story as well as a historical investigation.
The story begins as Elizabeth Vogelsang is found floating in the river just below her garden with a prisim in her hand. Elizabeth was a Cambridge University historian, she was working on a manuscript involving Isaac Newton and the 17th century alchemists. Elizabeth's son recruits Lydia to move into Elizabeth's place and into finishing his mothers book. You will be amazed at the events that follow and at the discoveries Lydia makes along the way.
If you are looking for a thriller with romance, mystery, murder, and the supernatural this one will surely fill your desires. I found this one to be beautifully written and it is apparent that the author has done her research. I found that with Ghostwalk you must read with comprehension as it may leave you reading back through again to assure nothing was missed the first time.
Someone falls down a flight of stairs in seventeenth century Cambridge and dies. This and similar innocuous deaths are linked to present day murders. This is the premise of Ghostwalk. Yet some things don't mix. The contemporary scientific world of neuroscience research, animal rights activists and marital infidelity sits uneasily beside supernatural events originating in Newton's seventeenth century Cambridge. The supernatural elements, while quite unimpressive, are if anything more believable than the preposterous claimed nexus between academia, the pharmaceutical industry and the military-industrial complex. The story is warped by the conflicted attitude of the protagonist: Lydia Brooke, a historian and mistress of a respected, married neuroscientist. Her ambivalent feelings toward her lover overflow into a general mistrust of hard science and scientists. Strangely she has acquired a palpable and particular dislike of Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists of all time. This is quite disturbing since unfortunately, for her and for us, she is engaged in completing a book about Newton. Dragging him into this story about odd deaths seems completely unnecessary except as a publicity stunt. There are repeated, though poorly explained, references to Newton's involvement in `alchemical networks'. Alchemy did not have quite the same connotation then as it does today and that Newton was involved with other scholars goes without saying. Yet it is also true that by Newton's time in the second half of the seventeenth century alchemical ideas were fading. Allusions are made to dispelling the myth of the lone genius and replacing it with a picture of Newton receiving substantial help from others. This is unnecessary since Newton himself said that if he had seen far it was because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. In any case, anyone familiar with scientific methodology will disregard the lone genius myth in the first place. All of this amounts to a confused story of little external reality and much inner emotional turmoil. I do not recommend it. Readers interested in Newton and the seventeenth century would do well to read Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson.
on August 7, 2007
My neighbor gave me this book to read. Knowing that I truly respect and admire one of the greatest scientists that ever lived, Sir Isaac Newton, she insisted that I would truly enjoy this novel. Well, I jumped at the chance to read a story where Newton was given a role, maybe even center stage. Needless to say I never became bored with this book. The author created a wonderful tale blending the new world with olden times of Newton. It was very apparent that Ms. Scott did a tremendous amount of research into the subject matter, which I appreciated. There are numerous posted reviews that do an excellent job of detailing the story so there's no need for to add another. I would like to add that I enjoyed the book and it kept my interest all the way until the last page. I understand that this is the author's first novel and I look forward to her other releases.
on May 27, 2007
After reading a publisher's glowing review of this book, I was excited to get my hands on it. However, I found myself struggling to keep reading it, and ultimately abandoned it halfway through.
Maybe I gave up on it too soon, but it just didn't have that sense of urgency that makes you want to keep turning the pages to see what happens.
Also, I found the way in which it was written extremely confusing, and at times very distracting. I don't know the technical term for it, but when Lydia is describing her interactions with Cameron, and she refers to him as "you", because she's both writing TO him and about him, it made for a very rough read.
I did enjoy the part about how glass making came to be, and I think had the author either stayed in that time/vein or the present, instead of jumping around so much, it would have been easier to follow.