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Book Review - The Ghost by Robert Harris

State Secrets

The Ghost
by
Robert Harris

Published by Simon & Schuster

Review by W. R. Greer


It's obvious after reading The Ghost that Robert Harris has an axe to grind. Not that this detracts from his novel at all, but instead gives it a focus and intensity to the topic he wants to examine. In this case, it's politics, or more correctly, the actions of the UK government in the war on terror. Once an ally of Tony Blair, Robert Harris eventually condemned the government for its participation in the war in Iraq.

The Ghost of the title refers at least to the unnamed ghostwriter who narrates the novel. He's been hired to be the new ghostwriter for the memoir of retired prime minister Adam Lang after the untimely death of the previous ghostwriter, Mike McAra. McAra had been a long-time aide to Adam Lang and spent most of his time doing in-depth research about Adam Lang's past instead of interviewing him about his own history. Lang, his wife, his aide and suspected mistress, McAra, a couple secretaries, and several security guards were holed up in a mansion on Martha's Vineyard where they were supposed to be working on the memoir. McAra disappeared on a ferry trip to the island on a cold January night and was found washed up on the shore. The new ghostwriter is given an enormous amount of money to finish the project. The catch is that he has only four weeks to do so and McAra left behind 600 pages of boring facts and figures about Lang's life that would never sell. The new ghostwriter describes it:

"A crock of shit," Rick had called it. But actually this was worse. Shit, to quote Gore Vidal, has its own integrity. This was a crock of nothing. It was strictly accurate and yet overall it was a lie—it had to be, I thought. No human being could pass through life and feel so little. Especially Adam Lang, whose political stock-in-trade was emotional empathy.
Adam Lang had been an actor while at Cambridge and had discovered politics after university. His charisma helped him rise quickly to the top of the political pyramid and he began his reign as prime minister extremely popular with the people. As the events of the war on terror and the unpopular war unfolded, his popularity faded away and he was now a despised man. England, in The Ghost, is a place suffering from constant terror attacks, which the UK citizens blamed on Lang's unflinching support of the American-led war on terror. As the ghostwriter makes his way from London to Martha's Vineyard, a news story is breaking that at one point, Lang directed intelligence forces to kidnap Islamic British citizens from Pakistan and turned them over to the Americans who tortured them, killing one of them during a waterboarding session.

The ghostwriter doesn't get a lot of time with the ex-prime minister until Lang's entourage is forced into crisis mode. Former British Foreign Secretary Richard Rycart (who was dismissed by Lang) provided evidence to the International Criminal Court of Lang's involvement with the extraordinary rendition, which would constitute a war crime. While others are involved with responding to the crisis, the ghostwriter finds himself alone with Lang's wife, Ruth, and the information left behind by Mike McAra. Ruth has been at her husband's side during his entire political career, and he rarely made important decisions without consulting her. She's sympathetic to the ghostwriter's task at hand and the difficulties that surround it, yet retains an acid tongue and lashes out at him at times. The ghostwriter also begins to ask questions about McAra's death and begins to suspect it wasn't a suicide, as everyone else assumed it to be.

The more the ghostwriter delves in McAra's death and Adam Lang's past, the more contradictions he uncovers. The more lies and clues he discovers, the less he knows whom to trust and where the new information may lead. He's also aware that if this information led to McAra's demise, he's possibly in danger too.

In some ways, The Ghost is a typical political thriller. What makes it rise above the ordinary, though, is its familiarity with current events as well as Robert Harris' controlled outrage at these events. Yet, he also gives equal time to the opposing view that extraordinary measures must be taken to protect citizens from terrorism. Lang explodes at one point:

"I mean, take for instance all this civil liberties crap. You know what I'd do if I were in power again? I'd say, okay then, we'll have two queues at the airports. On the left, we'll have queues to flights on which we've done no background checks on the passengers, no profiling, no biometric data, nothing that infringed anyone's precious civil liberties, use no intelligence obtained under torture—nothing. On the right, we'll have queues to the flights where we've done everything possible to make them safe for passengers. Then people can make their own minds up which plane they want to catch. Wouldn't that be great? To sit back and watch which queue the Rycarts of this world would really choose to put their kids on, if the chips were down?
The Ghost drags for a bit when the ghostwriter first meets Lang, and despite some uneasy undercurrents, things appear to be going well with his interviews with Adam Lang. The plot stagnates for a bit, but the process of extracting personal information and converting it to a memoir fills the void with its own intrigue. Once the ghostwriter gets in over his head, the second half of the novel moves at a quick pace as more of the secrets of Adam Lang are uncovered. Robert Harris gives a peek into the political world with insights that ring true. Rycart remarks at one point, "It isn't having power that's exhausting—it's not having it that wears you out."

Robert Harris, speaking through his ghostwriter spells out the difference between good books and bad books:

And what they have in common, these bad books, be they novels or memoirs, is this: they don't ring true. I'm not saying that a good book is true necessarily, just that it feels true for the time you're reading it.
Following Robert Harris' own explanation, The Ghost feels true. His characters act like we believe politicians would, and his intrigue and secrets, while surprising within the story, are unsurprising in the world of political theater where the ends often justify the means. While Adam Lang is not Tony Blair, Harris' outrage at recent history hits the nail on the head. The Ghost rises above political thriller to an eye-opening examination of the recent past and current issues. Whatever literary or political points he meant to score with The Ghost, Robert Harris has done so in both a thought-provoking and entertaining way.

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