On the cover Iain Pears describes Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott as ‘a compelling contemporary love story and a fascinating historical investigation.’I’ll add to this that it is a tale of the supernatural concerning two mysteries – one from the present day and one from the 17th century, where the past and the present are seen to overlap.
As indicated by the title the book is haunted by ghosts. It’s also full of alchemy, mysterious figures, quantum physics and animal liberation campaigns. All of which make a potent mixture. This is the second book I’ve read recently with alchemy as a theme – see The Season of the Witch, here.
It is set in Cambridge, following the death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a reclusive historian, found floating in the river that runs through her orchard, clutching an antique glass prism in one hand. Was it suicide, or was she murdered? Cameron, her son a neuroscientist, asks Lydia Brooke (formerly they were lovers) to finish writing his mother’s book about the 17th century and Isaac Newton’s involvement with alchemy. Lydia moves into Elizabeth’s house – a strange house full of light moving upon the walls, flickering, appearing and disappearing for no apparent reason. Lydia explains:
Light that looks like water- as if it’s reflected off a bowl of water. Rainbows that appear in little stubs that stretch out till they disappear, really slowly. I’ve tried photographing them but my camera doesn’t seem to be good enough to catch them.
The book moves in time between the present day and the future as well as the past. Life is seen as a palimpsest, layers of time overlapping and interweaving. It’s narrated by Lydia, who finds herself heading back into a relationship with Cameron, as she looks back on the events that lead up to a court case and into a series of mysterious deaths in the 17th century. At first I found it somewhat puzzling and fragmentary – who was being addressed and who is on trial, how did the animal liberation campaign fit in, what was Newton’s involvement, who was responsible for the deaths and how or if they were connected to the present day?
The image of ground elder with its tenacious roots joining a ‘great network of root systems underground’ indicates the connections that will be revealed as the story unfolds, once Lydia starts digging into the past. The paranormal is added to the mix through Elizabeth’s friend Dilys Kite, a psychic, who reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s character Alison in Beyond Black, who Lydia consults in an attempt to find out more about the past than is revealed in written sources. The interconnection theme is continued in the theories of quantum physics, with the mystery of how particles of light and energy, and time and space are intricately entangled.
The setting is brought to life through Stott’s beautiful descriptions of Cambridge, invoking the smells of the medieval fair, the colours along the River Cam and the landscape of the Fens. Colour and light play a large part in the book; a description I particularly like is this of the river:
Reflected colours ran from the brightly painted barges into the water. Greens – so many greens all around us: the silver-green of the underside of the willow trees, the emerald of the grass along the bank, the mottled grey-brown-greens of the scrubland on the common over the other side. Virginia Woolf had described the riverbanks as being on fire on either side of the Cam, but there was no such fire here now. Or at least not yet. There was red – rowan berries, rose hips, pyracanthas – but the red sat against the astonishing palette of autumn green like the sparks of a newly lit fire, like drops of crimson blood in the hedgerows.