My very short relationship with British author Robert Harris has been a bit of a hit and miss affair: I absolutely loved the compulsively readable Fatherland (1993) but struggled to finish the dull and plodding Enigma (1996), and so I've not been inclined to read his other novels -- Archangel, Pompeii, Imperium -- for fear of wasting my time. But his latest book, The Ghost, has received so much press attention and been lavished with equal amounts of praise that I admit to being intrigued enough to give the man a second shot.
The Ghost was published last September among a flurry of reports that it was based on Harris's one-time friend, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie. This is a claim that Harris denies.
But reading this book it's difficult not to think of the the two main characters -- Adam Lang and his controlling wife Ruth -- as thinly veiled versions of Tony and Cherie. The difference is that in this novel the couple are immersed in an extremely wicked plot that even the conspiracy theorists would have a hard time dreaming up!
The basic premise of The Ghost is this: an unlikely (and unnamed) ghostwriter, who specialises in celebrity biographies and knows nothing about politics, is employed to write the memoirs of ex-British PM Adam Lang for £250,000. A previous ghostwriter -- a loyal colleague of Lang's -- has already died in mysterious circumstances while working on the project.
The "catch" is that he must fly to Martha's Vineyard, where Lang is holed up with his wife, and write the book in under a month. The manuscript must not leave Lang's house and no copies are allowed to be made. Rigorous security procedures are put in place to ensure that this doesn't happen.
As work on the revised memoir gets under way, Lang is accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Instead of returning to Britain to face his now unpopular public, he flees to Washington and protests his innocence. And then things start unravelling with deadly consequences...
This is a wonderfully compulsive read, even if the plot is slightly absurd and surreal in places (there's a couple of holes in it too). But Harris has delivered such a thoroughly modern thriller, it feels timely enough to be "real". In fact, it's difficult to imagine such a book being written less than eight years ago, when the War on Terror, suicide bombers in London, and Britain's "special" relationship with the current American administration simply did not exist.
The narrator's voice rings true and there's enough intrigue to keep the reader turning the page to find out what happens next. I read this book in two longish sittings, because I absolutely had to find out how everything ended. I'm not going to give the game away, but the denouement is not only surprising, but satisfying and very clever.
I'm glad I gave Robert Harris a second try. The Ghost delivers such an entertaining read, I'm not sure why I doubted him in the first place.