Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2009. 336 pages. $25 (hardcover)
John Harwood is a master of nouveau Victorian Gothic. The only other writer who can equal his storytelling power is Sarah Waters, whose Little Stranger
wowed me when it came out last year. I picked up Harwood’s first novel, The Ghost Writer
, on a whim and was amazed at his ability to recreate the atmosphere of the late nineteenth century. He knows all of the tricks of the trade, but unfortunately, with all the advantages of vintage British horror come the inevitable gaps and misdirection that heighten the suspense at the expense of the plot.
The novel opens with a lush portrait of Constance Langton, second child to a mother who has gone mad over the loss of her first. I think having to play second fiddle to a dead sibling would drive anyone bonkers, and Constance has her fair share of insanity. One of the strengths of Harwood’s novels is his use of characterisation. We think, nay, we know that Constance and company are loony toons, but that doesn’t keep us from believing everything they tell us. Because we are so tightly wrapped up with Harwood’s characters, the brief moments of fresh air come as a shock and wrench us out of the gloomy, spiderweb infested rooms of Wraxford Hall.
The all-too-frequent moments of self-reflection do nothing to lessen the surprise. I grew frustrated every time a character sat on a stool to think through the events in the novel. We know they’re mad, and thus their logic will inevitably be flawed, but recognizing this did not make me feel any smarter when a character inevitably reached the wrong conclusion or made broad assumptions based on scanty facts.
That said, you don’t read a Gothic novel for the dialogue. The moments of creeping around the half-dead gardens and the cameos by corpses and monks were enough to remind me that this is a fun read, not something to be deconstructed. Don’t look too hard for the strings, and Harwood’s puppetry will astound you.
Overall, the novel did not disappoint. A satisfying summer read, but not one that will leave you scared of the dark.