I said I would continue to work through my backlog of reviews, and I do always try to keep my word. Plus I have most intriguing books to write about, even if I read them so many weeks ago now that I have to go back and check on the character’s names. Still, bringing the past into the present is wholly apt for the first novel I’ll talk about here, Rebecca Stott’s Ghostwalk. The story begins with the writer, Lydia Brooke, returning to Cambridge for the funeral of a close friend, the historian Elizabeth Vogelsang, who just happens to be the mother of her ex-lover. Several years ago, Lydia lived and worked in Cambridge and fell in love with the married neuroscientist, Cameron Brown. Recognising that their affair was hopeless, Lydia left Cambridge and began a new life elsewhere, but when Elizabeth is found drowned in mysterious circumstances, a controversial book on the secret life of Isaac Newton as an alchemist still unfinished, she is drawn back into the sticky web of the past. Cameron invites her to finish his mother’s work and, falling under his spell once again, she agrees to do so, moving into his mother’s house, and inevitably resurrecting their love affair. At this point the narrative splits into two strands that will echo one another and occasionally entwine. On the one hand there is the story of Isaac Newton, told through interpolated chapters of Elizabeth’s book describing the mysterious web of alchemists that operated in Cambridge and across Europe at that time. Newton’s appointment to a fellowship at Trinity College occurred in unusual circumstances, and a series of suspicious deaths surrounding the event seem to indicate unresolved murder rising up through the layers of the past to trouble the present. Like Elizabeth before her, Lydia starts to see ghosts and supernatural phenomenon, as if the act of stirring up the past had physical consequences. On the other hand, however, the second strand concerns the increasingly violent acts of an animal rights group, NABED, who are targeting the laboratories in which Cameron works. Lydia is clearly in danger, the narrative insists, but is it reaching out to her through the past or firmly embodied in the terrorists of the present?
The story resists answering this question in any straightforward way, preferring to operate according to the principle of entanglement, the most powerful concept evoked by the story and one which ties together past and present, near and far, the emotional and the physical. The notion comes from quantum physics, that supernatural form of science, although in the dialogue that follows, Cameron explains it to Lydia as a reflection on the spooky telepathy that exists between lovers:
‘ “They discovered that when two subatomic particles – that’s photons, electrons or qubits – collide or interact and then move apart, they retain a kind of connection even if they’re at opposite ends of the universe. They have become entangled.”
“What kind of connection?”
“It’s incredible. If one of them changes the direction of its spin, the other will do so too – simultaneously, even if they’re light years apart, at opposite ends of the universe.”
“How does that explain what happened to us?”
“It doesn’t. At least not directly. But if quantum entanglement controls chemical processes, it must also have some effect on biological processes. When we talk about the chemistry between two people, aren’t we really talking about a kind of quantum entanglement?”’
Some scientists suggest that entanglement can work across time too, so that moments in the present shadow those in the past. But of course it’s been a principle of narrative since stories began. Echoes, reverberations across time and through events, metaphor and meaning are all offshoots of the way our perceptions and our experience tend towards surprising similarities. But most authors, for the sake of plausibility, keep their entanglements to a minimum. Rebecca Stott works them into every level of her plotting with the result that Ghostwalk is a rich and vibrant narrative that leaves you thinking long after having put the book down, but it is also a story that occasionally becomes too entangled for its own good. It struck me as a classic academic’s failing, as academic writing demands that you extend your argument as far as you possibly can, and I’ve noted before that this can translate into overly complex novels from professors. By the end I found myself wanting to suggest that the author give it a rest for a bit and just tell us something straight. And inevitably, some of the narrative lines work better than others. But this is an extremely beautifully written book, pieced painstakingly together by an author who is clearly very intelligent and who has done her research. It’s also a remarkable entanglement of fact and fiction, with Stott suggesting in her copious end notes that the story of Newton she fabricates could indeed have historical veracity. I will certainly be interested to read the next novel that she writes.
An author whose works I’ve grown to appreciate is Esther Freud (great-granddaughter of the famous Sigmund), and I enjoyed her most recent novel, Love Falls. This is in many ways a very classic coming of age novel, focusing on 17-year old Lara who is invited on holiday for the first time by a father whom she barely knows. Lara is the result of a youthful fling between her hippy mother, Cathy, and her distant, academic father, Lambert. There’s no acrimony between them, but Lara has been brought up by her mother with only occasional visits to a father who mostly acts as if people are just tremendous obstacles to his research interests. Now, however, and surprisingly, he invites Laura to accompany him to Italy where an old friend of his, the elegant if uptight Caroline, has been seriously ill and asking him to visit. Father and daughter head out to the hills of Tuscany to spend three weeks at Caroline’s luxurious villa on the outskirts of Siena, and it’s not long before Lara has become embroiled with the family next door. Only next door in this case means a property that stretches over the area of a small village and a family whose wealth and privilege fails to compensate for their notable lack of ethics. The Willoughbys must be up for an award as the most unsympathetic literary family of 2008, but that doesn’t prevent Lara from falling in awkward, intense adolescent love with one of the sons, Kip. The Love Falls of the title is a local beauty spot, a waterfall where the families will congregate and a series of disturbing events will be set in motion that force Lara across the borderline between childhood and the unsettling adult world.
This is a gloriously easy read, but Freud’s luscious prose never makes you feel less than an intelligent reader. Her descriptions of the sights and sounds of Italy (and the food!) are sumptuous, and when the action of the book moves to the Palio, the annual horse race that takes place in the center of Siena, the excitement and tension become palpable. Freud does a wonderful job of getting inside the head of an adolescent girl striking out into dangerous territory, and the developing relationship between Lara and her reserved father is written with sensitivity and insight. Intertwined with the main narrative are Lara’s memories of a year-long trip to India she undertook with her mother and Freud is reliably good on the vagaries and the delights of travel, using the multiple locations to give the story an exotic, cosmopolitan feel. I read this over the course of two days because I couldn’t put it down. But if I have any reservations it’s over the end of the story. Some pretty terrible things happen to Lara while she is in Italy, but rather than follow through their implications, Freud chooses to emphasise Lara’s youthful resilience. I read this book while my son was away in Spain and so it may have been the knock-on effect of my own experiences at that time, but when I came across an interview with Esther Freud concerning this novel, I was struck by the way she spoke of her own child (a 13-year-old son), acknowledging that in a short while he would be wanting his independence and how alarmed that made her feel. There’s an almost fairy-tale quality to Love Falls and I wondered how much Lara’s resilience was the product of a parental perspective that knows precious children must go through harrowing adventures, but insists that all will be well. Little girls can be cut out of the stomachs of wolves, half-starved children can be rescued from ovens, coma victims are awakened with a kiss. And yet, the action of the narrative takes place over the summer when Prince Charles and Lady Diana wed, and there, if anywhere, is the story of a fairy tale that was destined to end badly. Perhaps Freud wants only to suggest that entanglements are the unavoidable consequence of growing-up – the defining feature of the adult world, maybe – and that blundering through them on the path towards survival is all we can ever do. Or perhaps she is showing us how the traumas that come to bite us unexpectedly in later life often have their roots back in the youthful, overly-optimistic adventures we embark on that are experienced intensely and understood only poorly. Either way, this was a very enjoyable read from a talented writer. I would also recommend The Sea House by her (in fact, much as I liked this novel, I think I prefer it – but that may be a post for another day).