Gerard Freeman, the protagonist of John Harwood's novel The Ghost Writer, has three obsessions: his mother's stories about the family estate he's never visited, the gothic horror fiction of the great-grandmother he never knew, and his boyhood "penfriend" Alice, who signs her letters "your invisible lover." Gerard comes of age in provincial '80s Australia, cut off from mainstream society and marooned from his legacy. Most of the book's action takes place at the end of the '90s, after Gerard and Alice have switched to e-mail and he's left for London, to meet her and to track the family secrets.
The Ghost Writer is split between Gerard's quest and fragments of fiction written by his great-grandmother Viola. Harwood puts a lot of thematic and narrative weight on those fragments, which he writes in the elevated, melodramatic style of early-20th-century romance. Viola's stories return compulsively to the same plot points: lost fortunes, missing persons, dead parents, unseen art, falling bodies, the mismatched passion of lovers, and how the distraction of false hope can drive people mad. The more Gerard uncovers about his family history, the more it seems to shadow Viola's fiction, and as a boy who's lived most of his life in books, Gerard begins to fear that his own fate has already been written.
The Ghost Writer inevitably stumbles at the finish line, because it's hard to keep this kind of "what's lurking in the shadows" mystery going forever; sooner or later, the lights get turned on and the truth turns out to be too plain or too silly. Until about the last 15 pages, though, Harwood maintains an impressive balance between Viola's musty old pulps and Gerard's narration, which is infused with muted rage at the way he was unfairly denied a richer life. Readers can see what Gerard doesn'tthat his pining for some halcyon past has become an addiction, and that his family skeletons have become his only elusive connection to real life. Because of this sickly faith in a vaporous history, The Ghost Writer can be called, in all seriousness, a haunted book.