Review: The Ghost by Robert Harris

I picked this book up second hand ages ago but haven’t been tempted to pluck it from my TBR shelves until the Good Reads Aussie Readers Summer Challenge required me to read a book that has been made into a movie.

This aptly titled tells the tale of a professional ghostwriter who is asked to complete the memoir of a fictional ex-British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (having an uncanny resemblance to Tony Blair). The project was begun by a former aide of Lang’s who apparently committed suicide and there is now a rush to get the book finished. After agreeing to take the job our un-named narrator heads to Martha’s Vineyard in the US where Lang and his wife are staying but before he can get much work done Lang, increasingly unpopular at home, is accused by one of his former Ministers of a heinous act committed during the ‘war on terror’ and the UN’s International Criminal Court looks set to charge him with war crimes. When the ghostwriter learns some of the secrets that his predecessor had uncovered his own life comes under threat.

Unfortunately this is a book with a premise that’s far more intriguing in the imagination than in execution. Harris’ historical thrillers are packed with atmosphere, interesting characters and genuine thrills but here not much is left after you spend some time trying to work out which characteristics of his former friends the Blairs he has incorporated into the ‘fictional’ couple and which he’s made up (and really there’s a limit to how interesting that activity is).

I suspect this is not what the author intended but I found the parts of the story that dealt with the craft of ghostwriting and the behind the scenes insights into big publishing far more interesting than the central plot concerning the Langs, their secrets and their acceptance (or otherwise) of their loss of power and influence. That part was plain dull. If you’ve ever had a big argument with a good friend and dashed off a long, rant-y email or letter immediately after the argument you’ll have some idea what this story is like. It’s full of that spiteful venom we humans tend to spew out when we’re hurt and it would have benefited from sitting in a drawer for a few years and being dusted off again when the worst of Harris’ hurt had faded. Perhaps then he would have been able to weave a few genuine thrills into a story that in its current form is just a long diatribe about how wrong it was for the UK to follow the US into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and what a bastard he thinks Blair was for being at the front of the charge. Whether I agree with Harris or not on this point is irrelevant, this is supposed to be a work of fiction not an op-ed piece for a major newspaper. As a work of fiction it is poorly constructed, lacks suspense, has a highly unbelievable (not to mention cringe-inducing) sex scene and an ending that made me giggle (at it, not with it).

Within the book the un-named ghostwriter shares a theory about how all good books are different but all bad books are the same: they don’t pass what he calls ‘the seaplane test’ which is named after a book in which someone landed their seaplane on the Thames as a means of getting to work at which point nothing else in the book rang true. I’m not sure if it’s ironic or just sad that this book itself fails to pass its own test for ringing true. It’s page-turning enough and there’s a nice undercurrent of humour but there’s just not enough substance to the characterisations and set pieces to be genuinely engaging.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 2.5/5
Publisher Hutchinson [2007]
ISBN 9780091796259
Length 310 pages
Format trade paperback
Source I bought it second hand

6 thoughts on “Review: The Ghost by Robert Harris

  1. Bernadette – Sorry to hear this one didn’t live up to your hopes. The premise really sounds so very interesting… I’m actually intrigued by the behind-the-scenes look at the publishing house angle, though. I don’t know if that will induce me to read this one, to be perfectly candid, but I’m glad that at least you found that part interesting.

  2. I’ve only read one book by Harris – that was Pompeii, which I thought was good. So when I saw this book in the 3 for 2 offers I bought it and still haven’t read it. Sorry to see you weren’t keen on it!

  3. “all good books are different but all bad books are the same” – nice quote.
    I tried Robert Harris “Ludlum” and was put off by the writing. So much hype around Harris new books when it hits the stores. Thanks for the confirmation. I won’t be reading this.

  4. I found it difficult to get past the obvious Blair plot for quite a while, but I warmed up to it eventually. An okay, long distance plane journey read that isn’t quite as exciting as landing in a seaplane, but passes the time. Some of it is a bit ridiculous, but I’m sure aspects of the Blairs lives are.

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