Rarely these days does one come across a really good book that is also really well edited. "The Ghost" is just right: as in a good whodunnit there is almost nothing that is extraneous to the plot, but it is so page-turningly readable that you don't have time to put the pieces together before the last page hits you like a pick-axe. All you can do is sit dumbstruck and admire the writer's skill in taking you on such a ride.
The reviews of "The Ghost" seem to be split down the middle, with some readers sorely disappointed by Harris failing to live up to past efforts and other reviewers ecstatic at one of the best political thrillers in years. I'm firmly in the latter camp. I could hardly put it down, was riveted throughout and found the ending chilling. It's up there with John Le Carre's best, in my opinion.
But what really makes this story a masterpiece is the stylistic perfection that Harris has achieved. I cannot explain further without spoiling the book, so I will just say that this is an intelligent thriller that left me satisfied on several levels, and one of them was an appreciation for a piece of writing that really works. I do wonder if some of the disappointed reviewers didn't quite "get" the book.
I confess to having approached "The Ghost" rather warily. I'd heard that it was a thinly veiled attack on Tony Blair, who seemed a tediously easy target and in danger of becoming out of date. Also, I'd read two of Robert Harris' others (Fatherland and Archangel) and although I enjoyed them, I found the ending a tiny bit lame in both.
But "The Ghost" knocked my fears for six. It's true that the prime minister in this has some rather obvious similarities with Blair, who Harris apparently used to be pretty close to, but the book in no way relies on the Blair parallel for its success. And you certainly don't need to have a particular view of Blair to enjoy the story.
And my prejudice about Harris' ability to finish well was unjustified. This ties up the loose ends with a flourish and signs off with a touch of genius. It is surely the mark of a really top-notch thriller that you think you can sort of see how it will all fall into place but then the author pulls a rabbit from the hat at the very last moment.
on 18 February 2008
I didn't expect to like this half as much as I did - I have long thought of Robert Harris as airport fodder. I'm sorry, I now see that was unfair.
This isn't exactly literature but it's well plotted, well paced and well written. Its fictionalisation is often wafer-thin -- even the revelatory photograph of former prime minister "Adam Lang" is very much like a well-known picture of Tony Blair during his university days.
It's curious that someone so well entrenched within mainstream journalism is prepared to write a book about CIA conspiracies against the British Labour Party - I would have thought this stuff wasn't widely believed beyond the far left. But well done to Harris for writing such a plausible thriller set in this sort of world.
on 3 March 2008
This is the 2nd Robert Harris novel I've read, 'Archangel' being the first. 'The Ghost' is an excellent novel and holds your attention from beginning to end.
I see that some (New Labour?) reviewers are attempting to play down the similarities between Adam & Ruth Lang, and Tony & Cherie Blair. There is merit in either argument but it is certainly true that Harris, since publication of 'The Ghost', is now apparently deemed a 'non person' from all insider accounts coming from within the Blair Court - this after having being so close to the centre for so long.
Certainly, the similarities between Lang and Blair are striking. The playing to the cameras, the desire for an audience to believe in, and to justify his actions, and the overall persona, is Blair all over. Read a dialogue passage of Lang's, close your eyes and it's 'All things to all Men Tony' once again. Lang himself doesn't resort to a 'Death of Diana' performance but we are left in no doubt that there is certainly one beneath the surface.
Ruth Lang is a cold unattractive character. Again, your political views may well determine whether or not she is a reminder of Cherie Blair's ambition and general attitude. To my mind, there are certainly strong similarities.
Harris paints a convincing picture of Marthas Vineyard and is generally good on scenics throughout. All characters are well fleshed out and are generally believable. To slay one ghost, the spectre of Robin Cook does not stalk these pages. Since his death Cook has claimed a posthumous gravitas, one which his political and ministerial career frankly never merited - and the suggestion (not Harris's, I believe) that he is supposedly the important and influential Rycart character does not hold water.
All in all, an excellent novel and recommended.
The narrator of Robert Harris's new novel is a ghostwriter assigned to write the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister. But all is not as it should be; the ex-PM, Adam Lang, finds himself exiled in Martha's Vinyard with a war crimes indictment hanging over him. A previous 'ghost' had died in mysterious circumstances. And what of the shadowy right wing organisations that lurk in the background?
Lang, is a thinly fictionalised version of Tony Blair, a former friend of Harris, and much has been made of this and of other real life charcaters who are meant to crop up in the book. Lang's wife Ruth is said to be Cherie (she's not) and there's meant to be a Robin Cook figure (there's not, really).
I was under the impression that this would be a novel about a former PM brooding over his legacy, but it's actually a decent - if not implausible - thriller. Some of it is far fetched, though never as ludicrous as a Dan Brown book, and it is entertaining and gripping. I read it in an evening.
There are echoes of Graham Greene at times, and the ending was reminisent of Evelyn Waugh's Handful of Dust. The implications of Britain's 'special relationship' with America are laid down in terrifying if not exagerated terms. And while too much has been made of Harris's former friendship with the Blairs, there are flashes of insight that are revealing and amusing.
Not a brilliant work of literature by any means, but a better thriller or beach novel you won't read this year.
on 1 October 2007
This is a departure for Harris, being set in contemporary Britain against the background of international politics and it works very well. The narrator's voice is very clear as he moves from amused detachment through bewilderment and fear to taking charge of his own destiny. The references to the current political scene are incisive and often witty. It's written with pace and verve. I read it on one sitting so I suppose I found it "unputdownable".
If I have a criticism, it's that the trail is a bit too easy for the ghost writer to follow.
I still prefer his earlier novels, especially Fatherland and Enigma, which were not set in the current time and I re-read those often. I can't imagine re-reading this one as there is not quite enough going on outside the hunt for the story hence only four stars.
It is a very good, gripping read though.
on 26 August 2009
I thought Tony Blair believed the war in Iraq was a right and just thing. I had this notion because of the unpopularity of the invasion, the millions of protesters against it, and my belief politicians care only for their image and the votes a positive image can offer. In short: if he was willing to lose votes he must believe it was right. I didn't hold this view for long, and my support of the invasion of Iraq didn't last. But I still wondered why, if the policy was unpopular, did a voracious popularity junkie like Blair go along?
Alex Salmond of the SNP made a comment which painted Bush and Blair as a couple of cowboys with their "thumbs in the jeans" as they necked a few cold Budweisers "down on the ranch". I don't accept that sort of absurd cartoon (but one can hardly blame Salmond for making it; after all, the less relevant the politician, the more noise they make, like sulky children, throwing tantrums for attention.) But there had to be a reason for Blair's complicity, so what could it be?
Robert Harris offers his entertaining theory in The Ghost, and takes a swipe at the wispy façade of Blairism.
Adam Lang, Harris's fictional Blair, is using the house of a billionaire publisher to write the manuscript for his memoirs, and he's been using a party aide as his ghost writer until that particular fellow goes overboard into the drink while on the Martha's Vineyard ferry. His replacement, the novel's nameless narrator, flies to the US to take on the assignment.
The story is the discovery of what lay behind Blair's blind support of Bush over Iraq and Afghanistan and his head-bowed obedience to any requests from our American friends, from public support of Israel to the use of UK military bases for the CIA planes on "extraordinary rendition" flights.
This is a gentle thriller; the plot opens out slowly, and never offers the absurd level of conspiratorial revelations and shenanigans of The Da Vinci Code; this is much smarter and better tailored, with one foot planted firmly in the possible.
The urge to create a conspiracy of which Dan Brown would be proud must have been hard to resist for Harris, but resist he does. His lead stumbles across the secret by accident, and digs himself in deeper, it seems, because of the tedium of the task of writing the memoir, and never senses the danger that is walking alongside him with every step, like an assassin on a different plan of reality; (of course, because the narrator fails to sense it, so do we, and even when we do, the threat is not taken seriously until the final page.)
This is a fair example of how to do a large conspiracy but still keep it simple and plausible.
I loved Fatherland, liked Archangel, and, I have to confess, got thoroughly confused reading Enigma (although I did finish it). The Ghost comes somehwere in the middle. I enjoyed he first two thirds or so, but began to lose the plot - in every sense - towards the end. The basic idea is excellent; the 'ghost' who is employed to write the memoirs of the British ex-prime minister finds himself increasingly caught up in undercurrents of intrigue, and becomes torn between his duty to fulfill his remit (ie to write the book) and his increasing desire to solve the mystery which surrounds it. The characters are believable, and the plot ingenious, but towards the end, a bit too ingenious for this reader, and it left me with some unanswered questions. If you like Robert Harris, then you will probably enjoy this book. If you have only read Fatherland, then beware; this may disappoint.
on 17 September 2008
you'll have the gist of the story from the other reviews so I won't bother too much with that and give you a brief asessment of the book as a novel . Its not the most exciting read you'll ever have although it is quite atmospheric in a sort of Shipping News type of way ( althoughy just as plodding ! ) . Its quite evocative of Marthas Vineyard in winter and how rough the weather can be with its portrayal of windswept and rainy beaches and hamlets .
I though the Adam Lang character portrayal of a former British Prime Minister was quite weak and unconvincing . The character didn't quite seem to fit the role , particularly when using the word " man " at the end of a sentence !
Not a particularly gripping novel by any means but was quite easy on the eye and the plot wasn't taxing either . Which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your individual point of view . I thought the ending wasn't particularly climatic either and one was left wondering " was that it ?? " when the last page was reached .
Not a page turning blockbuster by any means but one to peacefully pass the time . And then throw away .
on 26 September 2007
I'm always looking for sharp, contemporary political thrillers. For some reason they're hard to find. John le Carre, for example, produces a book only every two or three years. And there are few writers who can challenge him.
This book shows that Robert Harris can.
It's shrewd, witty, fast, original, on-the-mark politically and very timely indeed.
I read it in one sitting.
on 9 October 2007
The Ghost: The main character is Adam Lang, until recently a Labour PM, a lapdog to an incompetent American president, now formally charged with war crimes thanks to the resentful ex-colleague he fired as Foreign Secretary(all a bit close to reality). Add this to the fact that that this former PM has a domineering and annoying wife and you wonder if the Author has been a bit lazy in using his imagination. It is written as the first-person narrator assisting a former Prime Minister write his memoirs.
I did enjoy this book although would imagine a certain former PM squirming as he reads, although it is written in good humour. The Ghost refers to the Ghost Writer and is a clever way of carrying the book, but in reality the Author is making a very stern (and sometimes bitter) attack on a certain former PM.