The Ghost Writer (2004) begins in regional South Australia in the 1970s, as the narrator Gerard grows up lonely in an isolated town with a protective mother, Phyllis. Phyllis is protecting secrets, and the day Gerard snoops through her locked drawer to find an old magazine and a photograph is the last time his mother even speaks of her English childhood in a country house called Staplefield. Around the same time, Gerard receives a letter from a penfriend club and begins a passionate exchange of letters with an orphaned, paralysed English girl named Alice Jessup.
Gerard takes another chance and finds the old magazine still in the drawer; inside the magazine is a ghost story by his great-grandmother, Viola, reproduced in full in the novel. Gerard keeps pouring his heart out to Alice, his ‘invisible lover’; he saves up to visit her in England as a surprise, only to hear nothing from her when he gets there. She was sick in hospital, she tells him later, and we jump forward years, to find Gerard in his thirties, still living unhappily with his mother, and still hanging on the hope that an operation will allow Alice to walk, the condition she has placed on them being able to meet in person.
After his mother dies, Gerard makes another trip to England, this time advertising for anyone who knew of his mother or great-grandmother while he waits for Alice to be ready to see him. An elderly lady writes to him and he begins to uncover the family secrets which might explain his mother’s unhappiness. At the same time, he uncovers more of Viola’s secrets, which eerily presage events in the life of Phyllis and the sister Gerard didn’t even know she had. The prophetic stories, the family secrets and the mysterious Alice finally all come together.
The Ghost Writer is suitably haunting, carrying in it the sadnesses and disappointments which span across generations, paralleled in and engulfed by the strange world of Viola’s stories. Gerard is a likeable if self-occupied loner and his voice is clear yet affecting. This novel moved me and mystified me.