<i>Book review: The Ghost </i>

01:43, Jan 31 2009

News that Tony Blair has just signed a monster deal for his memoirs with publishing giant Random House could not be more ironic. From the same publisher (under its Hutchinson imprint) comes Robert Harris'excellent new political thriller, The Ghost, which is about guess what? a recently resigned British Prime Minister working on his memoirs, with the aid of a ghost writer, while attempting to head off a war crimes charge brought by a former colleague.

To describe Harris'plot as thinly disguised current events would be unfair to thin disguises. Beneath the surface action lies a clearly discernable outrage at recent geopolitical history, in particular the supine foreign policy Tony Blair offered up to George Bush. The fictional PM is one Adam Lang young, good looking, charming, eloquent and inscrutable at any deeper level. He is charged with abetting the illegal kidnapping of British nationals by American anti-terror forces, which ends with the death of one "suspect". As with Blair (arguably even more of a fictional character than Lang), the mystery lies in what animates his total surrender to American wishes, when there is plainly no great quid pro quo even by the one-sided standards of the "special relationship" between Britain and the US.

The first-person ghost writer, a veteran of hacking out autobiographies for idiotic rock stars and even stupider football celebrities, offers Harris the opportunity to really write about what he knows. The book is full of wry, cynical asides that could come only from the mind of a hardened wordsmith. Having also written some splendid non-fiction including Gotcha! about the Falklands war, and Selling Hitler about the great diary swindle Harris has a journalist's eye and ear for anything pretentious, phoney, hypocritical or pompous. He's just as tough on non-journalists, too.

The central action revolves around our man's contract to write the Lang memoir, a vacancy caused by the mysterious death of the previous amanuensis, who was also the PM's most loyal assistant. Lang has holed up in the mega-mansion of an American billionaire on Martha's Vineyard in winter, the sleeting, frozen, overcast backdrop to Lang's own fortunes now the sun of power has gone down.

To divulge the lie at the core of Lang's career would be to give away the book's central conceit. Suffice to say it is both outrageous and bizarrely plausible. And although it's not a surprise ending, as such, it still sneaks up on the reader most effectively, a testament to Harris' talent as a master thriller writer.

Compared to his previous novel, Imperium, an astonishing piece of historical fiction (part of a yet-to-be finished trilogy) based on the life of the great Roman senator and rhetoritician Cicero, this could be said to be Harris marking time. Where Imperium was obviously the product of prodigious research and deeply crafted story-telling, this is fast and flashy. Any half-sentient person who's had half an eye on the news over the past five years will have no difficulty getting the references or recognising the political pathologies on display here. (Example: the evil military-industrial conglomerate is called Hallington, a mere syllable's distance from Dick Cheney's real life fount of blood money.)


That said, this is fast and flashy in the way a Ferrari is. Harris informs the narrative with psychological insights into both the mindsets of the powerful and their entourages, and the complex relationship between an "author" and his "ghost". As the weight of the real world begins to bear down on the central character, we get a stifling sense how brutal and cheap power politics really is, how casually the machine can chew up and spit out the inconvenient truth or those who stumble upon it almost by accident.

If you've read Harris before, you'll need no recommendation. If you haven't, and you're looking for a book that'll have you turning in early for the pleasure of a good story well told, you won't be disappointed.

Sunday Star Times