'Ghostwalk' And 'Her Fearful Symmetry:' Reviews Of Two Novels About Ghosts

 

This hub is Part One of a three part series about ghosts. This hub will be reviews of two novels featuring ghosts as major plot devices. Part Two will be reviews of two nonfiction books dealing with ghosts. The last part will be two ghost stories from my family, including my thoughts about these stories, especially in light of some of this recent reading I’ve been doing.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

 

This novel takes place mostly in London, and features a ghost as one of the main characters. In the beginning of the novel we meet Elsbeth, middle aged and terminally ill. Perhaps to the reader’s surprise, Elsbeth doesn’t disappear from the story at her death, but remains as a ghost, even managing to find ways to interact with the living characters. Niffenegger also wrote the Time Traveler’s Wife, and this is another story about love complicated by otherworldly events. Elsbeth’s lover grieves their separation deeply, but reconnecting with her in the form of a ghost turns out to be complicated. In the same building as the ghost and her living lover, a man suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder loses his wife because she cannot stand his behavior any longer, especially his refusal to take medication. The OCD man and his estranged wife become the subplot of the novel, and I think a very effective foil for the ghost story. Also in this mix are Elsbeth’s American nieces. Though she never met the girls while alive, Elsbeth left her flat to them, on condition they would live in it for at least a year. So the novel puts all these characters into one building: two men grieving lost loves, two naïve American sisters, and a ghost.

 

I found the prose of Her Fearful Symmetry lovely. The portrayal of grief is especially vivid. The complexity of relationships of all types is beautifully shown: romantic love, sibling tension, jealousy, parental attachment, friendship, dynamics of subtle and not so subtle domination. Though I enjoyed the book, and think it is well worth reading, I couldn’t help feeling the author was rushed at the end. About two thirds of the way through, some plot details didn’t ring true. This is a shame, because there is so much of value here. I ended up feeling that the subplot was more successful than the main plot: the story of the OCD man and his struggle to overcome his disability and win back his wife never falters.

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott

Ghostwalk takes on a real five century old mystery. Issac Newton, brilliant Cambridge scholar, was under a great deal of pressure to give up his studies and return to the family business. Out of money, he needed a Cambridge Fellowship to continue his academic career; unfortunately, all posts were filled. Then a rash of odd deaths hit the Cambridge Fellows. Falls down stairs, drownings late at night. All of the deaths could be explained as accidents, but one has to admit the convenience of it all is striking. Was Newton involved? He gained one of the now empty seats, and so built his brilliant career. No one has ever been able to prove anything, one way or another.

The novel begins in present day Cambridge, where an elderly scholar is finishing a book about Newton. She is secretive about her writing, but drops hints she has solved the mystery of Newton’s involvement with the Cambridge Fellow’s deaths. When she dies before completing the book, her son asks (of all people) his former mistress to finish the research and bring the book to publication. Of course we run into all sorts of complications here, what with the former lovers rekindling their affair, and a ghost making its malevolent presence felt. Is the ghost Sir Issac Newton, trying to protect his reputation posthumously? Or is it one of Newton’s contemporaries? Or is this all some illusion created by the shadowy and violent animal rights group which has inexplicably taken an interest in this scholarly work? The tension in Ghostwalk builds seamlessly, and mysteries ghostly and romantic resolve in believable ways.

I highly recommend both these novels. Both blend the supernatural and the material world with skill.

 

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