GhostI have to admit, I know almost nothing about politics. Yet even I realised that Adam Lang, the charismatic former prime minister of Britain at the centre of Robert Harris’s The Ghost, had to be modelled on Tony Blair. Lang’s similarly close relationship with the United States’ government during the war on terror was enough to convince me, despite not knowing the finer details of Blair’s political career. A lot of discussion of The Ghost has focused on Harris’s obvious distaste for Tony Blair, as seen through his portrayal of Adam Lang. As someone who doesn’t follow politics, I don’t think it really matters either way to readers’ enjoyment whether or not Lang is a satirical drawing (or straight-up indictment) of Blair, especially since in the later parts fiction and reality greatly diverge.

The unnamed narrator of The Ghost is a cynical ghostwriter with no interest in politics, who usually ghosts memoirs of has-been rock stars, footballers and starlets. Although seemingly unsuitable, he gets the job of ghosting the autobiography of Lang after the sudden death of the narrator’s predecessor, long-time aide to Lang, Mike McAra. He drowned in the freezing waters around Martha’s Vineyard under suspicious circumstances. In order to meet the deadline of producing a complete manuscript in a month’s time Lang’s new ghostwriter is sent to meet him at a secluded Martha’s Vineyard mansion during the midst of winter. As they start work on the memoir news breaks that Adam Lang is to be charged with war crimes for aiding the CIA during the war on terror.

During the first half the pressure slowly mounts. The death of Mike McAra, the war crimes tribunal, the foreboding isolation and violence of Martha’s Vineyard in the winter, all build tension brilliantly, but it could all so easily be coincidence instead of signal conspiracy. The tone of the first part is almost more deadpan political satire, with the narrator the outsider exposing the absurdity of Lang and his inner circle. Eventually The Ghost develops into a fast-paced thriller, with characters ready to kill to protect their secrets and a main character who knows too much but can never be sure who he can trust. It has all the standard elements of the thriller genre but still manages to be clever and exciting. The first half has more wit and biting humour, while the second propels you towards the end, desperate to know how it finishes.

The narrator is likeable, in an acerbic loner kind of way. He’s far from a hero, almost passively following the leads. Harris’s writing is at its strongest when he’s harnessing his ghost writer’s cranky, sarcastic voice: ‘A book unwritten is a delightful universe of infinite possibilities…Set down one sentence and it’s halfway to being just like every other bloody book that’s ever been written.’ He’s quick to imagine he’s in the midst of a conspiracy but reluctant to believe he could actually be right. I like his reluctance, it’s believable. The ex-prime minister Adam Lang is charming but weak and hollow. He had absolutely no interest in politics until his early twenties and runs every decision past his calculating, smarter wife, Ruth. Amelia Bly, Lang’s spokeswoman, largely comes across as hard and unnecessarily mean, perhaps to give the impression that there’s more to her than meets the eye. After all, red herrings have always been a staple of thrillers.

I did find the book lacked an emotional centre. The characters are all too detached, too jaded. I cared about the story, about finding out how it all ends, but not so much about the people. Despite this, The Ghost is a tense, intelligent thriller, and even before the action really takes off I was fascinated by the world of political intrigue. In the end, Harris’s book is not only about politics but about power – the desire to attain it and the unyielding will required to keep it.

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