Reviewed: December 20, 2008
By: Rebecca Stott
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicholson
290 pages, $24.95
Ghostwalk shows us another way of blending the past and the present in a single
story. There are several layers of narrative here, the oldest being a biography
of Sir Isaac Newton called The Alchemist. It was to have been the crowning work
of historian Elizabeth Vogelsang, but she was found dead in the river near her
cottage, clutching in her hand a prism which was said to have belonged to Newton.
Enter Lydia Brooke, who is the main narrator of this novel, contracted by Volgelsang’s
son, Cameron Brown, to take his mother’s rough draft and her notes and
ghostwrite the work she had begun. This request is complicated by the fact that
Cameron and Lydia were once lovers and that they soon renew that relationship
even though he is now married.
It is further complicated by a series of inexplicable local murders, deaths
which seemed to be linked only in that they are the 21st century echo of a similar
set of murders that took place in Newton’s day.
Did the 17th century murders have something to do with ensuring that Newton
got the university position he needed to secure his future prospects? If so,
was this done with or without his knowledge?
As to the modern murders, why do they coincide so in date and method with those
of the past? What is the connection between them and animal rights terrorist
organization called NABED? What are the secrets Cameron is keeping from both
his wife and his lover? What is the source of the visitations Lydia is experiencing
while living and working at Elizabeth’s cottage? What is the connection
between all of these things and the psychic investigations of the old woman
named Dylys Kite?
The 17th century deaths are real ones, and it was while researching her own
work on Newton’s life that historian Stott says she began to speculate
in ways that made a better novel than a treatise:
“Had Newton, the famous recluse, become entangled in some dark crime or
series of crimes? He had, after all, directly profited from the deaths.”
In an interview she said that the shape of the plot for this novel came to her
while talking to a fellow passenger in a shared taxi during a meteor shower
in Spain. It was so foggy they could not see the display, but the man was an
expert and described the probable effects to her as an entanglement of lights
“We fell silent and I began to think of Newton at the centre of his own
set of entanglements.” Suddenly the basic plot of a novel seemed clear
in her mind.
“At the airport I bought a notebook and wrote it all down, a story that
seemed to have come directly out of a meteor shower.”