Review: The Ghost by Robert Harris

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (October 23, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416551816
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416551812
  • Reading group: adult
  • Genre: political thriller


The narrator, an intelligent, acerbic and single ghostwriter, is the perfect guy to do a high-stakes job on short notice. In order to recover from breaking up with his latest girlfriend and also for pecuniary reasons he decides to step into the shoes of his colleague named Michael James McAra. McAra had a nasty accident – he fell off the Martha’s Vineyard ferry and drowned while he had been trying to make the memoir of a former British prime minister, Adam Lang, publishable. Adam Lang sounds and looks suspiciously like Tony Blair, the real British ex-prime minister. He and his wife are currently living on a wintry Cape Cod, at the luxurious American estate of their billionaire publisher, where Lang is supposed to finish, with some little help, his “autobiography”. The death of his first “ghost” is just a minor obstacle. Like a true politician Lang won’t cancel the contract and refund his advance – the deal was made in this politician’s heyday and he fully knows he is worth less money now that he’s over the hill.

The new ghostwriter finds the deadline really terrifying and, after all, he is supposed to produce “the first full inside scoop by a leader on the west’s war on terror”. More accustomed to fabricating the memoirs of addled pop stars and inarticulate footballers, our narrator wants to “put some heart” into the leaden first draft left behind. When the rewrite begins, he meets other residents of the estate – Lang’s strangely embittered, restless wife and his slinky personal assistant, an overly devoted woman, who is also Lang’s more or less overt mistress. Soon the situation gets even more complicated and tense. Lang is to be investigated by the international criminal court on charges of war crimes, possibly even of crimes against humanity. When he was in power four British civilians were detained on suspicion of terrorist intentions and handed over to the Americans for interrogation, which meant nothing less than torture. Richard Rycart, an estranged former foreign secretary, has a letter signed by Lang that appears to authorize that arrests. The publisher shortens the deadline, which was already very demanding at the beginning. To make things even more complicated the ghostwriter finds out that some ruthless, faceless powers are after the unlovely manuscript. Perhaps his colleague’s drowning wasn’t an accident after all. What will happen to him and to his client ? Will he be able to finish his job satisfactorily?

What I liked:

“The Ghost” is very good – intelligent, perceptive and fun – as long as it is able to sustain its tone of witty tartness.

The first part I found to be the best – here’s the example why. The unnamed narrator cynically criticizes some former clients while praising his faithful super-slim laptop: “We had endured rock stars who believed themselves messiahs with a mission to save the planet. We had survived footballers whose monosyllabic grunts would make a silverback gorilla sound as if he were reciting Shakespeare. We had put up with soon-to-be-forgotten actors who had egos the size of a Roman emperor’s, and entourages to match.” How not to love him instantly?

Also citing a real handbook on ghostwriting by Andrew Crofts was a very good move – some tricks of the trade were really entertaining and they added a touch of professionalism and reality to the story. Not to mention the fact that I fully agree with  the author’s  scolding of the publishing business for creating and coddling hack memoirists.

Finally the sensational core of the plot – the great revelation, and the crucial twist in the tail of it – is an accusation no one could make or take literally. The Ghost is, not about Blair; though of course it remains an indictment of everything he did and stood for. I think it is mainly a novel about the traps and snares that wait for everybody who craves power. To cite a sentence from another Harris’s novel, “Imperium”, “power brings a man many luxuries but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them.” How very true.

One more remark : readers should be warned not to read the last pages of the book before they work their way there naturally because Harris has saved a little surprise for them  at the very end. In my opinion the last paragraph of the book nearly redeemed most of the faults by the way.

What I didn’t like:

It’s a pity that “The Ghost” loses its entertaining factor in the second, more action-packed part. The book degenerates swiftly into a commonplace “airport” mystery – a novel that its protagonist might have held in contempt when his safety and professional detachment were still there. By introducing special forces, spies and a shadowy evil corporate entity “The Ghost”, I must admit, underwent a complete sea change from its promising early pages. It seems a good ghostwriter would be needed here.

Final verdict:

This is a quick, effortless read: good vacation novel but not quite as riveting as I’d expect. If you want to read a good Harris book, try “Imperium”, reviewed by me here.

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14 Responses to Review: The Ghost by Robert Harris

  1. Tracy says:

    I read this book on a flight to Toronto – I agree almost 100% with your review, but it is quite a good one to read on a plane! And I guessed the main twist about halfway through, though again I agree, it isn't something that's remotely believable.No, technically it's not about Blair, but the fact that Harris used to be friends with Blair, and then they fell out, certainly makes you view this book in a different light.

  2. Hm… I really like your quotes, but I think this is something I really have to be in the mood to read. Perhaps if it was more about our soap opera/gov't I might take a look. Na, if it had to do with Bush… I probably wouldn't. lol This is a great review. It looks like I'd be pulling out quotes and thinking on them with this book. *ponders*

  3. anachronist says:

    I agree that sometimes the way we construe a book depends also on the reading conditions. This novel can make your time fly by and if you read it during a long journey its entertaining factor might be actually its huge asset.the fact that Harris used to be friends with Blair, and then they fell out, certainly makes you view this book in a different lightCertainly. I was surprised when I found out that Harris actually saw and experienced real political struggle from so close quarters and then decided it was not his piece of cake. I suppose it was partially about Mr. Blair and partially about the politics itself.

  4. anachronist says:

    Lol Melissa we were posting at almost exactly the same time! Perhaps if it was more about our soap opera/gov't I might take a look. Na, if it had to do with Bush… I probably wouldn't. lol This is a great review. It looks like I'd be pulling out quotes and thinking on them with this book. *ponders* I will say just this: the narration takes place mainly in America anyway so if you are planning a long, boring journey this book might help you to kill the time in a very enjoyable way.

  5. Blodeuedd says:

    I have to ask my friend of she has read that other book then 🙂 She had a look at my shelves today and pointed out a book..sadly it was not a thriller, just a book with a title like it 😉

  6. anachronist says:

    Do ask her Blodeuedd!

  7. You know, they made a movie of this book called Ghostwriter. Ewan McGregor pays the part of the "ghost." As a movie it was wonderful. I didn't realize it was based on a book.

  8. anachronist says:

    Yes, I know. The movie was directed by R.Polanski and I think it is good (I haven't seen it yet but one day I will).

  9. Demitria says:

    I just saw the movie. I liked it, especially Ewan MacGregor. I'll have to check out the book and see how it

  10. anachronist says:

    McGregor is one of the best young actors around, imho at least. I'll have to check out the movie to see if it is better than the book now! Thanks for your comment, Demitria!

  11. @Not to mention the fact that I fully agree with the author's scolding of the publishing business for creating and coddling hacksHear, hear! I heard Bristol Palin is coming out with her memoirs. :-(Harris is a good author. My to read list is already too long.

  12. anachronist says:

    Bristol Palin's memoirs? What an utter nonsense! What has she achieved? Had sex? Got pregnant and had a baby as a teenager? Honestly the company which is going to publish it has no decency whatsoever!

  13. She did make it to the finals on Dancing With the Stars. 😀

  14. anachronist says:

    Oh dear, did she really? *false swoon*

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