Chances are if you’re picking up Robert Harris’ book “The Ghost Writer” now, you’ve probably seen the excellent Roman Polanski adaptation starring Ewan MacGregor and Pierce Brosnan. Originally titled “The Ghost”, it is a lean, fast-paced and efficiently thrilling read that you’ll enjoy even if you already know the twists and turns coming your way.
Harris begins every chapter of the book (there are seventeen in all) with a quote from Andrew Crofts’ handbook on ghostwriting, each of them carefully chosen to set the scene for the chapter itself. For instance, in the sixth chapter when said ghost writer first sits down to interview the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, the quote chosen goes: I have often been told by subjects that by the end of the research process, they feel as if they have been in therapy”.
These quotes give readers a better insight into the process of ghost-writing, as much as Harris’ prose which tells the story from a first-person perspective. Written from the point of view of the ghost writer himself (unlike Roman Polanski’s film), Harris adopts a sly, slightly sardonic tone throughout the book as his titular character who has never written a single memoir for a political thriller or has ever had much interest in politics is thrust into a world of lies, appearances and closely guarded secrets.
This irreverent tone is in fact pretty enjoyable- and together with the well-placed punchlines especially telling of the knotty relationships among Adam, his astute wife Ruth and his chief publicist Amelia Bly- are a juicy treat for many, who like the ghost writer, are discovering the world of politics for the first time. Harris’ observations of the political sphere are also timely, touching on issues that those on both sides of the Pacific will especially be able to relate to.
Indeed, one can surely sense the similarities between Adam Lang and the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who during his days in office, gave his unwavering support to Bush’s questionable war on terror. Quite keenly pointed out is the fact that America is among one of the few countries of the world, e.g. Iran and North Korea, who does not recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in Hague, and hence becomes a refuge for Adam Lang when he is accused of sanctioning the use of British intelligence to kidnap four British citizens in Pakistan and deliver them to the CIA for questioning.
While an exciting thriller in its own right, Harris’ novel also compels its readers to think about the hot-button issue of civil liberties violations that were so conveniently swept under the carpet before. Its timeliness makes this read an even more engaging one, besides the conspiracies abound that will keep you guessing till the end. Of course, those who have seen the film will already know how it ends, but those who haven’t will find that a book can keep its cards hidden much better than a film and the twist ending even more satisfying.
"I mean, take for instance, all this civil liberties crap. You know what I’d do if I were in power again? I’d say, okay then, we’ll have two queues at the airports. On the left, we’ll have queues to flights on which we’ve done no background checks on the passengers, no profiling, no biometric data, nothing that infringed anyone’s precious civil liberties, used no intelligence obtained under torture- nothing. On the right, we’ll have queues to the flights where we’ve done everything possible to make them safe for passengers. Then they can make up their own plane they want to catch. Wouldn’t that be great? To sit back and watch which queue the Rycarts of this world would really choose to put their kids on, if the chips were down."
by Gabriel Chong