02 August 2008

Ghosts of Nowheresville Past

After a dearth of fiction in my life for the past few months, the past five books I have read have all been novels, most of them enjoyable while none of them spectacular. I suppose that too much time spent reading non-fiction has taught me to become too much of a speed reader, skimming over certain paragraphs and details, in an attempt to get to the end of the book - and the next book! - as quickly as possible. Of course, my skim-reading skills also stand me in good stead for novels, too, but only those where the substance is more important than the style. I was almost entirely ambivalent about The Alchemist, for example - probably because I read it too fast and didn't take the time to lap up the language, while Dana Vachon's Mergers and Acquisitions - the tale of a mediocre i-banker in NYC, who seems to lead a charmed existence, which ultimately turs out to be far emptier than he had ever imagined - went down very well (OK, so any book set in New York is already starting out on a good note).

The latest book to add to my read-in-2008 list was recommended by Maman, which would normally have meant that I might not have bothered (she is an incredibly slow reader, taking weeks or months to finish a book I would have devoured in an afternoon or a nuit blanche, and so we tend to enjoy completely different types of novel): Rebecca Stott's Ghostwalk. I don't normally go for ghost stories/hauntings/supernatural/spiritual bollocks, but this one provided satisfactory alternative, rational explanations for some of the goings on.

The main reason I bought the book was because it was set in Nowheresville - in fact, you could say that Nowheresville was the biggest character although, to put it mildly, this ain't exactly the equivalent of New York in Bonfire of the Vanities. There were references to local pubs, colleges, story-telling punt chauffeurs, the fact that there are no mountains between Nowheresville and Siberia (hence the fact it's always damn cold), rowers, familiar street names - even my gym got a mention. The basic plot is that after Lydia's friend Elizabeth is found dead in the river outside her house, Lydia returns to Nowheresville for the funeral after years of escape in Brighton, only to hook up with her old flame, Cameron, who is Lydia's son, a brilliant neuroscientist whose wife eventually became too much of a strain on Lydia. Cameron hires Lydia to finish the book Elizabeth was writing about Isaac Newton, alchemy and some suspicious deaths in the 17th century - only the deaths seem to be being echoed in the present day (history repeating itself but not as farce here), as well as all sorts of other funny business, and Lydia must work out what Elizabeth found out before she died so that she can set old ghosts (metaphorical and - maybe - physical) to rest. After all, "you have to know the past to understand the present" - according to Carl Sagan, anyway.

Long extracts from the book Elizabeth/Lydia are writing are copied out in the novel but I couldn't be bothered to read them properly (and I don't think it affected my enjoyment of the book) but I liked the rest of the novel enough to plough through it very quickly. Although it is a thriller, it is hardly full of action scenes - in fact, much of the action happened 400 years before the story was set - and seems to move along langorously, carefully and very, very precisely, like a diligent historian might. Dry, detailed explanations of Newton's experiments in alchemy are juxtaposed with tender, bittersweet scenes between Cameron and Lydia. In fact, much of the book is told in the second person - Lydia is addressing Cameron, telling him her story - her whole story - for the first time, as though she is finally able to be fully honest and the effect is that an air of sadness hangs throughout, which you might expect in a murder-filled novel and yet, really, it is more a sadness for times past, experiences lost, memories faded and friends separated.

There are plenty of other sub-plots, themes and contrasts as well as the interactions, entanglements and oppositions of the past and the present - art and science, research and animal ethics, the logical and the supernatural, love and loss, friendship and fear - but in all, Ghostwalk was a pretty engaging read (not to mention the fact that it has characters and a plot - oh, and dialogue - all of which have been somewhat lacking in this year's forays into non-fiction).

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