The Ghost by Robert Harris [A Review]

The narrator of Robert Harris’ The Ghost is a ghost-writer of celebrity autobiographies whose agent approaches him with an unexpected offer. A former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang, is in need of a writer for his memoirs. The previous writer, a former aide to the PM, has died suddenly in an accident and with the publisher’s deadline looming they urgently need a replacement to complete the work.

The ghost – the narrator/writer – is reluctant, admitting he knows nothing about politics despite living in a London suffering repeated terrorist attacks. Yet his agent does just enough to spark his interest and ambition and, when he shines at the interview, he lands the job. He barely has time to absorb his situation as he is whisked off to Martha’s Vineyard in the US, a former playground for the rich and powerful like the Kennedys, where he is to complete the work in relative quiet with Lang, Lang’s wife and their entourage. He soon appreciates the massive task in front of him. The work by the previous writer is awful; dry, plodding, matter-of-fact with no personality or humanity. With very little time, the ghost is going to have to start over.

This is just the beginning of his troubles. Lang is thrown back into the news with a controversy over the rendition of British citizens from Pakistan to the US where they would face torture and imprisonment without trial in Guantanamo. That it now appears to have been done with Lang’s knowledge and approval has made him the subject of war crime accusations.

The controversy is a new low for Lang whose public life has suffered a steep downfall. Youngish, handsome and brilliant on the stump; Lang was elected on a massive wave of popular support. Support which quickly deserted him as the methods of the war on terror became known and his supporters felt betrayed by a man they accuse of acting more in America’s interests than Britain’s. The ghost’s girlfriend, who was once a strong supporter of the party, leaves him once he takes the job of writing Lang’s memoirs.

The new controversy makes the ghost wonder what he has gotten himself into. Especially as the security around the memoirs seems extreme, aspects of Lang’s early life do not add up and the death of Lang’s aide looks increasingly suspicious. Somewhat naively and with little care for self-preservation, the ghost cannot help himself from following the clues left by his predecessor.

If Adam Lang sounds like a thinly disguised Tony Blair, it is not a coincidence. Harris, a former political journalist, knew Blair personally and was an early supporter and donor who fell out with him over the Iraq war. Harris is said to have dropped his other work to write The Ghost once Blair resigned in 2007.

Having done a lot of heavy reading lately – history, science, philosophy, literature – I have been increasingly desperate for some light relief from entertaining pop fiction. Harris is someone I have made a target of because of the enduring praise for his debut novel Fatherland, the coinciding of my interest in classical historical fiction with his recently completed trilogy on Cicero and the intrigue I have felt for The Ghost ever since seeing the film trailer and hearing the story of its inspiration.

The Ghost is the first Harris novel I have read and I am a little underwhelmed. I feel it lacks depth and feels rushed at times. Harris is a quick writer, publishing a new novel every couple of years or so, and I wonder if these deficiencies are a symptom of that. It has even made me question whether I would want to embark on his Cicero trilogy. If these are issues that persist in his writing it would make the Cicero trilogy especially disappointing given the complexity of the subject. The Ghost is a somewhat entertaining, somewhat engrossing, read. In the end, given the high standard of some recent thrillers, it just wasn’t a clever enough story to leave me impressed. If it were not for the roman à clef aspect, I would say it does not do enough as a novel in itself.

I had a few other minor criticisms as I read but they become problematic to discuss because, by the end, they have a role to play in the plot and would be spoilers to share. Suffice to say, there is a fair bit of cliché in this novel; something good novelists are loathe to be accused of. Since it turned out that the clichés were there to serve the plot, it could be said that the ending was the result of the sum of the clichés.

Probably the biggest fault the novel has is that it has not aged well. It is very much a product of its time – 2007-08. When the dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq and the war on terror in general was at its height. When we still had internet cafes because Wi-Fi and smartphones were not yet ubiquitous. When the legality and morality of rendition, torture and imprisonment without trial were hotly debated before being tacitly accepted, ignored and forgotten. But also before the GFC, Edward Snowden, ISIS and other events that have taken over discourse. This is probably the inevitable result of its opportunistic inspiration and speedy course to publication; that it captures a small moment in history but not much else to make it feel enduringly relevant. It is interesting and a little troubling that a novel set in 2007-08 already feels irrelevant, despite its confronting and still unresolved issues, because we’ve moved on so quickly.

The 2010 film, like the novel, is good but not great. It is well cast with Ewen McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall; and well directed by Roman Polanski. It follows the plot of the novel fairly closely and suffers the same problem of being not quite clever or complex enough to be truly impressive. The film too has not aged well. You almost laugh at the credulity of Ewen McGregor, who plays the main character, when he suggests what he has discovered is believable because “it is on the internet”!

To be fair, some of my critique is easier said in hindsight. At the time, you are too busy reading on; to discover the mystery, to see how things end. Harris does well enough to keep you intrigued and turning pages and should be given credit for that. It is just a question of whether, at the end, you are satisfied with what he has built you up for.

Reference: For the relationship between Harris, Blair and the novel; refer to the Wikipedia page.

One comment

  1. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Robert Harris so far – the Cicero trilogy and An Officer and a Spy – but I haven’t read this one yet, and I have to admit, it doesn’t sound very appealing to me. I’m sorry to hear it was disappointing!


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