Monday, November 28, 2011

Ghostwalk—Rebecca Stott

Cambridge is just a palimpsest. All of this is. Just one century laid upon another upon another. Nothing is ever quite lost while there are still a few old buildings standing sentinel. Time bleeds here, seeps, perhaps more than anywhere else in the city. You'll see. (21)

I suppose I should have been more prepared, given the title of the book. However, after reading the summary on the back of the book, I somehow thought that it was going to be more historically based and exploring "ghosts" rather than being minimally historically based and exploring Ghosts. The difference between quotes ghosts and capital-G ghosts is quite a large one.

Here is the summary on the back:

A Cambridge historian is found drowned, leaving her study of Isaac Newton's alchemy incomplete and a spate of mysterious deaths surrounding Newton's rise to face unsolved. Her fellow writer, Lydia Brooke, agrees to finish the book as a favor to the historian's son, a neuroscientist with whom she had a long affair. But her attempt to complete the book's final chapter, and her return into her former lover's orbit, put her in mortal danger as she uncovers troubling evidence surrounding Newton. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.
This was possibly the most misleading summary I've ever read. Probably a good 70% of the book is focused on reliving the old relationship Lydia had with her former lover (Cameron Brown) and in fact the rekindling of that affair. Breaking down the rest of the book, 15% explores the various supernatural occurrences which actually aren't entirely tied into the plot of the book; 10 % covers the historical content, including specific references to Newton's interest in alchemy and the appendices at the end of the book concerning those interests; and 5% are beautiful words.

While there were a few things that I appreciated, I found myself disappointed. The book felt disjointed, the plotline was not tied together in a coherent way, and it had little historical content to keep my history nerd side happy.

I also felt that she tried too hard to create a mystery, when she could have presented the mystery that was inherent in a more subtle manner.

The few things I appreciated: when Lydia is working on finishing the book that Elizabeth (the aforementioned drowned historian) left behind, the author included those chapters, along with some related images. Stott obviously did her homework; I'm not certain that the presentation was the most effective. Stott also included appendices in the back with relation to Newton which were quite interesting, if somewhat unrelated to the actual content of the book. It also made me think about some of those great historical figures that we learn about. How many of them had "secret," possibly shameful interests that we're unaware of because they're not typically included in our elementary school introductions to them? For Newton, it was alchemy, a kind of magic. What might it have been for some of the others?

The thing that kept me continuing to read (besides my obsessive compulsion to finish a book once I've started it) were the elegant descriptions and words that she used. These moments, admittedly fairly prevalent, almost redeemed this book for me.