Sunday, 14 November 2010

REVIEW The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

"The place was a trap, and animals caught in traps cannot escape one another."

Ah, it has been a fortunate reading week here on the rocky edge of Devon. First, Michelle Paver's chilling Dark Matter, and now The Anatomy of Ghosts, by Andrew Taylor, a contender for the best book I have read all year.

The title is partially misleading, in that this is not a conventional ghost story by any means. The haunting in these pages is more in the minds of the characters, more the trouble in their souls, memories and dreams, than in spectral happenings. But I say partially, because there are fleeting shades of the other kind too, barely understood by the characters, perhaps not even real, but all the more powerful for that. The climax of the novel is quite superb in this regard, and will stay with the reader for a very long time.

The novel is set in 1786, in the fictional Jerusalem College Cambridge, where the ghost of Sylvia Whichcote is said to be stalking the grounds only days after her death by drowning. One of the students, Frank Oldershaw, claims to have seen the ghost and having apparently lost his wits has been confined in an asylum. His mother, Lady Anne Oldershaw, recruits John Holdsworth, the author of a chapbook de-bunking ghosts (The Anatomy of Ghosts of the book's title), to travel to Cambridge to return her son to sanity. Holdsworth has more than his own share of ghosts to go with him, and we know from the outset that the investigation will tax him to the limit.

Once Oldershaw arrives at the College, we can delight in one of the tested and true mystery staples - the investigating outsider in cloistered community - that has produced some of the great classics. The Name of the Rose, is an example, or Death in Holy Orders by PD James and Dissolution by CJ Sansom. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane is another contemporary-ish example. My favourite is The Unburied by Charles Palliser. What this device does, I think, is increase the tension by allowing us to share the outsider status of the investigator, the paranoia engendered by a world unfamiliar only to our protagonist, but completely understood by the resident many. Who does Holdsworth trust? Who do we trust? Can we trust Holdsworth? Taylor's evocation of the ramshackle and slightly sinister college is outstanding. Ulimately, Holdsworth could disappear here and no one would know - he would simply be folded into the dark staircases and alleys and forgotten to an "outside" world.

It's clear early on that the solution to the mystery of Sylvia Whichcote's death will be earthbound, but it is also clear that the supernatural will play its part - not in some senses as part of the direct progress of the plot, but as something so ever-present as the weather or the change from day to night that it impinges on the actions of the characters and the atmosphere of the novel. It is all the more haunting for this, and these passages where dimensions brush past each other are beautifully written. It is such an effective treatment, and reveals so much more about our relationship with the unknown than many books with more scares, gore and ghouls per chapter than in this entire novel.

It is a thought provoking, wonderful book.

"More ghosts ... It seems that we constantly manufacture them. We are factories of ghosts."