Thursday, 21 October 2010

Book Review: The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

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"1786, Jerusalem College Cambridge. The ghost of Sylvia Whichcote is rumoured to be haunting Jerusalem since disturbed fellow-commoner, Frank Oldershaw, claims to have seen the dead woman prowling the grounds. Desperate to salvage her son’s reputation, Lady Anne Oldershaw employs John Holdsworth, author of The Anatomy of Ghosts – a stinging account of why ghosts are mere delusion – to investigate. But his arrival in Cambridge disrupts an uneasy status quo as he glimpses a world of privilege and abuse, where the sinister Holy Ghost Club governs life at Jerusalem more effectively than the Master, Dr Carbury, ever could. And when Holdsworth finds himself haunted – not only by the ghost of his dead wife, Maria, but also Elinor, the very-much-alive Master’s wife – his fate is sealed. He must find Sylvia’s murderer or the hauntings will continue. And not one of them will leave the claustrophobic confines of Jerusalem unchanged."


At the heart of London lie the colleges: Oxford and Cambridge, the good old boys of education. At the heart of Cambridge, author Andrew Taylor has it, lies Jerusalem College, a wholly invented and alarmingly eccentric campus which nevertheless has the look and the smell and the feel - the feel most of all - of the real thing. "The eighteenth century was not a glorious period for English universities," Taylor observes. "Individual colleges followed their idiosyncratic paths which were to guide them apart from their own statutes, which were at least two centuries out of date, as were the syllabuses that the universities prescribed for their students to study." Idiosyncratic is something of an underestimation of the mysteries that lie at the heart of Jerusalem, however, foremost among them The Holy Ghost club, an exclusive organisation of masters and students who gather together every so often to indulge their darker impulses. You know: drinking, gambling, going toilet on the floor and deflowering virgins... the usual sort of thing.

It's not entirely surprising, then, when of a morning Tom Turdman, Jerusalem's night-soil man, comes across the bloated corpse of Sylvia Whichcote in the Long Pond. Her death drives fellow-commoner Frank Oldershaw to madness: he swears blind he's seen her ghost - before he's locked away in the campus asylum, that is. Perturbed, Frank's mother Lady Anne enlists one John Holdsworth, sometime author of a bitter rebuttal of hauntings, now bereaved of his late wife and child and fallen on hard times, to travel to Jerusalem and put an end to the ominous mystery of Sylvia Whichcote's ghost.

Holdsworth is the perfect protagonist: an outsider rather than an academic, he represents our way in to the stifling and seemingly proper environs of the college. As he comes to grasp Jerusalem's labyrinthine inner workings, the insidious shuffling and muttering of those with much to gain and everything to lose in this isolated exemplar of late 18th century English society, so too do we. Holdsworth is, too, a damaged man. He has been stricken of everything that was of worth to him: his lifelong love, his son, his bookselling enterprise. He comes to the college with baggage enough to rival any of those Holy Ghost club members presumably complicit in Sylvia Whichcote's death, and The Anatomy of Ghosts is as much about Holdsworth's grief as it is his exponential unraveling of the so-called haunting which plagues Jerusalem's reputation. Having "failed to save his son," he becomes obsessed with restoring young Frank Oldershaw to his senses; if he can only "save this living boy in front of him... would it be something to set against Georgie's death?" he wonders.

To call The Anatomy of Ghosts a ghost story is to miss the point, I'm afraid. It is a narrative haunted, certainly, but by loss rather than any paranormal entity. True to the juxtaposition of the scientific and the supernatural in its title, Holdsworth's singular interest in the spectral presence supposedly roaming the college campus is in the rational explanation he believes underlies it as opposed to the promise of life after death its actual fact would entail. The Anatomy of Ghosts would be as well entitled The Anatomy of Murders, for Taylor's text is a crime fiction above all else.

As a ghost story, then, it runs the risk of underwhelming - though not for any failing on the author's part; as it is, which is to say a period crime piece bearing the supernatural as a device rather a purpose unto itself, The Anatomy of Ghosts is a winning specimen. Near enough, come to that, the equal of The American Boy, shy only the devilishly satisfying reveal of Andrew Taylor's last great shakes. Authentic without being banal in the mode of so much historical fiction, tense and suspenseful from end to end, evocative of an atmosphere at once subdued and rife with bitter undercurrents to rival those Sarah Waters has made her bread and butter, assiduously intelligent without ever falling to the showy or the self-indulgent, The Anatomy of Ghosts is masterful - if not, perhaps, in the ways you might expect.


The Anatomy of Ghosts
by Andrew Taylor
September 2010, Michael Joseph

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