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the complete review - fiction
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- The Ghost was made into a film also titled The Ghost Writer in 2010, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Ewan McGregor
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B : light, quick thriller -- some fun ideas, but ultimately too simplistic
See our review for fuller assessment.
Not quite a consensus, but most think it successful -- and some like it a lot
From the Reviews:
- "Harris once again delivers fine popular fiction in a satisfyingly slim volume that packs a wallop with its dead-on ending. The Ghost has every bit of spirit a reader could want." - Erik Spanberg, Christian Science Monitor
- "The Ghost ist denn auch genauso als Polemik gegen Blairs "servile" Einstellung zu George W. Bush zu verstehen wie der wütende kleine Band mit dem Titel Yo, Blair, in dem Harris' Freund, der Journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft, behauptet, Britannien habe in dem unheilvollen Blair-Jahrzehnt aufgehört, eine unabhängige Nation zu sein." - Gina Thomas, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Cynical, illuminating, both hard-boiled and passionately sensitive, The Ghost is a political thriller, not a satire, nor a veiled attack. (…) While the novel owes its existence, its composition in, apparently, five white-hot months, to Harris's anger at Blair and his administration, the fierce heart of the plot -- the great revelation, and the crucial twist in the tail of it -- are an imaginative impertinence, an accusation no one could make or take literally. The Ghost is, finally, not about Blair; though it remains an indictment of everything he did and stood for. It's also, and most vitally, intelligent, perceptive and enormous fun." - Colin Greenland, The Guardian
- "As one would expect from Robert Harris, the book is a masterpiece of observation, interpretation and analysis, all nicely paced. (…) True or not, one can see why a reader might perceive that the author had Blair in mind when writing it. The ambience is right, the dialogue fits, the main characters tally, the spinning is familiar and the cynicism is normal. But I'm happy to enjoy the book as a parody of Blair and his retinue, and of the publishing world from which Mr Harris derives his income and his satisfactions." - Cal McCrystal, Independent on Sunday
- "The Ghost is, then, a fine, rueful tale of how "I" becomes Lang's "accomplice". The moral is familiar and none the worse for that: they build you a pedestal and then pull you off it. (…) Harris hankers after those vast oubliettes of what we cannot bring ourselves to discard but have contrived to shelve." - Eric Griffiths, New Statesman
- "Anyone vaguely literate will foresee the moves of Mr. Harris’ pawns long before they have been shoved about the board of his plot. Given that they’re merely pawns, by the way, I’m not sure it was wise of Mr. Harris to allow his narrator to say that his "fundamental problem with our former prime minister" is that he’s "not a psychologically credible character." Nor are matters improved by the novel’s air of mocking self-consciousness." - Christopher Bray, The New York Observer
- "So far, so good. Then along come the stock characters, like Lang’s strangely embittered wife and his slinky personal assistant (…..) It’s a pity that The Ghost can’t continue in this entertaining vein. But the price of Mr. Harris’s marketing wisdom is a trumped-up plot with a timely emphasis on terrorism. (…)The Ghost never recovers its dry restraint. It degenerates into a commonplace mystery, a book that its protagonist might have held in contempt when his safety and detachment were still intact. It also insists on the kind of political timeliness that is more apt to become dated than Mr. Harris’s observations about debased popular culture." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times
- "Thus the book’s first, mischievous pleasure lies in its insider-ish insights into the Blair court (…..) Harris gets all this off his chest without smothering his storytelling. Even when he attacks extraordinary rendition and state-indulged torture, he maintains a taut, clear narrative line. The plot is unfussy and perhaps too linear for those thriller readers fond of pyrotechnics, but it unfolds with clarity and panache -- and with a classy twist on the very last page. Unusually for the genre, the novel is also nicely lubricated with humor." - Jonathan Freedland, The New York Times Book Review
- "Harris comes up with a plausible explanation for this; and it enables him, as an experienced political reporter, to describe routine behind-the-scenes chicanery with an accuracy as clinical as it is cynical. Yet it also leads him into some occasionally sloppy plotting in a book evidently written in white heat" - Anthony Holden, The Observer
- "Robert Harris has not written a political parable and he rams home no political message. His caricatures are an unusual form of ornament decorating an elegant and highly readable thriller. Blair deserves to have a really bitter novel written against him, but this is not it. There is more wit here than in some of Harris’ previous novels. (…) But alongside the thriller Robert Harris is fascinated by the psychological background to ghost-writing." - Douglas Hurd, The Spectator
- "The real Ghost, then, is Robert Harris. And what a jubilantly spiteful ghost he has proved to be. Blair is skewered, with magnificent rudeness, on page after page. (…) Harris handles it all with some elan and subtlety, if you’re a fan of the genre. The bleak, damp, winter woods of Massachusetts are beautifully evoked; this is, in more ways than one, a cold book, but none the worse for that." - Rod Liddle, The Sunday Times
- "Robert Harris's latest thriller is more than a fun read: it is a super-duper, double fun bag-sized read thanks to his masterful plotting. No, not the story of a ghostwriter caught within the machinations of politician-spies, although Harris handles the espionage element very well. It is the other story that will make the reader bounce with pleasure: how a supremely well-connected novelist decided to cause trouble for our ex-prime minister by fictionalising the things that he knows, the things that he suspects and, most deliciously, the things that he knows are untrue yet apt to be believed." - Nicholas Blincoe, The Telegraph
- "He has written a thriller that has more than a taut plot, though that is one of its enjoyments. It is a commentary on the Blair era, for which Harris has invented central characters -- a recently retired prime minister and his wife -- whose close resemblance to people we know means they spring with a familiar wave from the pages wearing smiles that don't have to be imagined. Although they do outrageous things that are only for the pages of fiction and have no basis in fact, Harris is pushing restlessly, even bitterly, at the line that separates the two. He does so with all the energy of a New Labour supporter for whom it has all gone sour. (…) The bitterness is unmistakable, and Harris is only just able to save himself from self-immolation in a parody of the apocalyptic thriller." - James Naughtie, The Telegraph
- "The Ghost is a satire, thriller and piece of political vengeance neatly rolled into one. And you can bet that it will remain a far better read than either of the turgid, sanitised, overpriced tomes that our former leader and his missus will turn out. (…)The Ghost is Harris back on sparkling form, bringing the politics of today alive with a lot more mischief, venom and magic than he applied to those of 2,000 years ago. As he insists, The Ghost is fiction, but it is fiction that feels like fact. And that’s what puts the thrill into "thriller"." - Peter Millar, The Times
- "(T)his libel-proof hatchet job on Tony Blair (…..) This is trial by thriller. Knowing the fate of Adam Lang, I confess it left me a little uneasy." - Michael White, Times Literary Supplement
- "The Ghost is a stellar novel on many levels. Harris cleverly alerts us that things aren't what they seem through subtle clues and well-timed revelations. Add the specter of the war in Iraq and its toll on the political climate in the USA and Great Britain, and it's obvious Harris has written one of the most politically informed novels of the year." - Carol Memmott, USA Today
- "For all its fun, The Ghost is finally about Guantanamo, rendition, waterboarding, official lies, a Halliburton-like conglomerate called Hallington and a CIA that's not always as inept as we think. Harris is asking at least three serious questions. (…) Harris has managed to write a superior entertainment that is also an angry portrait of today's political reality. If you don't like the current war or the people who dreamed it up, you'll find nourishment in The Ghost." - Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
In The Ghost the unnamed narrator takes on -- for very good money -- the commission to 'ghost-write' the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang -- a PM whose term in office, actions, and family situation all bear a striking resemblance to those of Tony Blair.
The narrator is a professional ghostwriter, so it's not that extraordinary that he's called in for the job, but the circumstances are unusual.
The man who originally had the gig, Michael McAra, died on the job, and the publishers, who apparently shelled out $10,000,000 for the book, are desperate to get a finished book out as soon as possible.
In fact, they want the manuscript delivered in a month.
There's a lot of money in it for him, and it wouldn't be bad for his career either, so the ghostwriter takes the job.
The fact that he's assaulted on the way home from the publisher as soon as they offer him the job, and that the manuscript he's carrying -- one handed to him at the publishers by Lang's American attorney, a book by another of his clients which he says he wants the ghost's opinion about
-- is the only thing stolen should maybe make him suspicious but, well, it doesn't .....
Blair Lang is holed up in America, on Martha's Vineyard, at some rich man's estate.
His wife is there too, Ruth (and you can almost feel Harris again and again resisting the urge to have the former PM call her ma chérie at some point ...), along with an assistant, Amelia Bly, and a large security detail, etc. etc.
It's winter and desolate out there -- everything comfortably ominous, with every conceivable tension (not forgetting the sexual) in the air.
There's also a lot of secrecy.
McAra had already written up a great deal, and the ghostwriter plans to base his version on that, but he's not allowed to remove the book from the premises (something he (unwisely) tests using modern technology).
And then there are the circumstances of McAra's death, which don't seem entirely straightforward (and will seem less and less so).
Harris has some fun in describing the ghostwriting life, the publishing industry, and the narrator's approach to celebrity books -- it's no Cooking with Fernet Branca, but it's not that far removed either.
The narrator's little speech about how to turn this particular memoir into one that actually sells seems, like much in the novel, a bit simplistic (if not downright a reductio ad absurdum), but at least Harris generally gets to his points very quickly -- and hence keeps things moving.
And sometimes the succinctness works -- barely more need be said about
Tony Blair Adam Lang than how the narrator sums him up right at the beginning; "He wasn't a politician; he was a craze."
They've barely started working on the memoir when things go from bad to catastrophically worse: the former British Foreign Secretary
has given documents to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and they're set to investigate
Tony Blair Adam Lang on charges that he illegally handed over terror-suspects to be tortured by the CIA.
The publishers see a fantastic opportunity here: now they want the book in two weeks time, and for the focus to be these allegations and Blair's Lang's side of the story.
Things get pretty frantic, especially after it finally gets through the ghostwriter's thick head that McAra's death was unlikely to have been accidental.
In an admittedly creative (if also slightly tiresomely-stretched out) use of modern technology Harris lets his ghost follow McAra's trail, leading him to a mysterious man from
Blair's Lang's past -- and into a whole lot of danger.
Some of the all-knowing spy-details seem a bit too good to be true -- they always seem to know pretty darn fast exactly where he is -- but the overall feel of the ghost being in way over his head is reasonably well done.
There are also staggered steps of resolution to the story, with Harris taking the easy way out with several of them (
Blair Lang, and then the ghostwriter), but the explanation behind it all, the story that they were trying to cover up (and which McAra had come upon) is a pretty clever twist.
The Ghost is pretty light as a Blair-character portrait, and a bit stronger as an indictment of the Blair years, in particular the PM's lap-dog relationship with the George jr. Bush administration.
As the former Foreign Secretary challenges the ghost:
"Come on," he said.
"It's not a trick question.
Just name me one thing he did that Washington wouldn't have approved of.
And Harris does offer a somewhat satisfying explanation what's behind that.
I have friends in Washington who just can't believe the way that Lang ran British foreign policy.
I mean, they were embarrassed by how much support he gave and how little he got in return.
The Ghost is a decent thriller: very fast-paced, with some good ideas and twists to it, and very topical.
It does also feel like something of a rush-job, much of it simplified, occasionally downright silly.
Still, as a quick airplane read it's perfectly adequate.
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The Ghost Writer - the film:
Other books by Robert Harris under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
British author Robert Harris, born in 1957, achieved international success with his first novel, Fatherland.
He has been a correspondent for the BBC, and a columnist for the Sunday Times.
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© 2007-2016 the complete review
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