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).
You write so wonderfully about books I always want to read everything you mention. I’ve had both of these books out from the library at various times, but as is always the case didn’t have time to read everything I had checked out. Now I’ll definitely go back for both. I read something by Esther Frued ages ago, but I’m not familiar with The Sea House (unless the title was changed over here). Of course now I am very curious what happens to Lara…
“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.” Could this be a case of science finally catching up with fiction? 🙂 Ghostwalk sounds like fun as does Love Falls. I wonder though, is it very tempting to want to psychoanalyze Esther Freud given her relations?
I’m desperately wishing I had either one of these books to delve into tonight! I’m especially interested in the Freud novel, for I love coming of age stories (must be the high school teacher in me 🙂 Although it must have been a disconcerting read while your own child was away on his first big trip. (I take it he’s home safe and sound now?)
Thanks for the superb reviews and recommendations!
Danielle – you are so kind – thank you so very much! I quite understand about getting books from the library and never reading them. When I was younger and used libraries for novels, I more often returned them all unread than not! Both are very good reads – Ghostwalk takes a bit more concentration but is worth it. Stefanie – LOL! Yes, it is very tempting to analyse Esther Freud, particularly as there is absolutely no analytical dimension within her stories – she is very good at showing and resolutely not telling. As for science, well, it may catch up in the end, but I doubt it 😉 Becca – I love coming of age stories too. Have you ever read Bilgewater by Jane Gardam? I remember that as being one of my favourites. Thank you for asking about my son – he had a brilliant time in Spain and considers it one of the highlights of the year. When I was reading the book, though, I did wonder whether he was having any ‘learning’ experiences! And thank you for your kind words that are much appreciated.
These both sound very good! I wonder what it would be like to be the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud … quite a legacy to grapple with. The Stott novel sounds particularly interesting to me — I think I’d enjoy reading a novel that has so much to say about science.
I thoroughly agree with you about the Stott, sometimes just too much of a good thing. But what a good thing. I hope that there will be a next novel and that she will have learnt how to select rather better. My one worry is that this may have been a one off. The amount of research she had obviously done might possibly be indicative of one great passion that had to find its way out and may not be repeated – I hope not. Still no joy on the Apple front – I’m giving them until the weekend and then joining you over here at Word Press.
Fysics and Phiction – what a fascinating combination. The sychronicity of separated particles combined with the Shroedingeresque uncertainty of individual particles. Echoes of past events ghost-writing the present and future. Reverberations from cataclysmic events in the future rewriting the present and the past. What a potential goldmine for the writers of psychological fiction. Oh, hang on; Jasper Fforde has already found the motherlode! 🙂
I had heard about Esther Freud’s novel but had got mixed reviews… now yours is probably going to tip the balance!
I’ve added Love FAlls to my amazon wish list. As a writer reading your review, I’m wondering if Freud became overly sympathetic with her heroine? I am writing a novel and am quite surprised how enormously difficult it is to force my narrator, whom I’ve come to like, which is ridiculous, through the dark parts of her history. And while I was sure of the last line of the novel, I was never sure how it would end, but I am leaning towards, admittedly, Things All Working Out, because she’s just been put through so much! Which is not a good writerly choice at all…maybe Freud wanted youthful resilience to win out because it so rarely does, in real life…
Dorothy – they’re an amazing family. I know that her sister, Bella is also talented and famous (although I can’t remember now what for!!), and Lucien Freud the painter is also related to them. You might well think that it would take a few generations to recover after Freud’s legacy, but no. I think you’d like the Stott too, particularly given its fascination with the 17th century, which it recreates very atmospherically, and I’d just love to know what you think of it. Ann – I know exactly what you mean. It did seem to be the product of an immense amount of research and whatever she did next would surely have to be quite different. I found and reread your review of this book before writing my own and agreed wholeheartedly with your assessment. But oh isn’t Apple a nuisance! I’ve tried several times to leave comments at your site to no avail. WordPress is nice. But of course it would be a nuisance for you to have to shift your site. Archie – you always make me laugh! And I have two Jasper fforde books on my shelves which I keep meaning to get around to, and then I never do. After that kind of write up, I can see I must make space for them! Smithereens – I do love the way she writes. She could have done a bit more with her characters, but it’s still a very easy, pleasant and engaging read. Good for early motherhood, I’d say! Courtney – I think that’s very perceptive of you. I’ve read other accounts of this novel that suggest it has a strongly autobiographical streak, particularly in the representation of the father who is portrayed in very similar circumstances to Freud’s. And Lara is a rather lovely character, naive, romantic, well-intentioned, innocent in the best kind of way. You read it really wanting everything to turn out well for her. And do keep going on the writing – you know we are all longing to read it one day.
Litlove, just to let you know that for the moment I’m duplicating the site over at http://peveril.wordpress.com/ I’ve put up the last few posts (and one about Pev Bear, who is very excited to have a blog published in his name!) and the comments there do seem to be working. If Apple get things together then I can always cancel it but I can’t go on not ‘talking’ with people.
I must agree that all your book recommendations so far have been excellent. And how can I resist Freud’s grand-daughter? The point about resilience is an interesting one – perhaps there was some wishful thinking that of course young people are resilient and will muddle through in the end. But I suppose that denies the real feelings of anxiety that things might not be alright (and often aren’t). Denying that just forces it underground.
So so sorry to put this in a comment (feel free not to publish, of course!), but I can’t seem to find an email address for you. We’re both listed in a book of “internet publicity,” and since my listing was screwed up, I thought you might want to know about it so you could correct yours, too. If you email me, I’ll give you all the details! Thanks and sorry again to distract from the discussion.
Ann – I left a comment at the Apple site today and I think it went through all right, but thank you for the link to your new site. I am so thrilled for Pev Bear and look forward to his editorial comments! Pete – ah you and I think just the same on this – I don’t believe denial ever works. It always comes back to bite you in the end, one way or another. So glad you have liked my recommendations – blogging has been such a fantastic source of new books for me, too. Emily – thank you so much for letting me know. I really must get my email back on this site, and I will be sending you a message very shortly.
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