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Ghostwalk: A Novelby Rebecca Stott
Synopses & Reviews
A Cambridge historian, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found drowned, clutching a glass prism in her hand. The book she was writing about Isaac Newton's involvement with alchemy — the culmination of her lifelong obsession with the seventeenth century — remains unfinished. When her son, Cameron, asks his former lover, Lydia Brooke, to ghostwrite the missing final chapters of his mother's book, Lydia agrees and moves into Elizabeth's house — a studio in an orchard where the light moves restlessly across the walls. Soon Lydia discovers that the shadow of violence that has fallen across present-day Cambridge, which escalates to a series of murders, may have its origins in the troubling evidence that Elizabeth's research has unearthed. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a dangerous conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.
Filled with evocative descriptions of Cambridge, past and present, of seventeenth-century glassmaking, alchemy, the Great Plague, and Newton's scientific innovations, Ghostwalk centers around a real historical mystery that Rebecca Stott has uncovered involving Newton's alchemy. In it, time and relationships are entangled — the present with the seventeenth century, and figures from the past with the love-torn twenty-first century woman who is trying to discover their secrets. A stunningly original display of scholarship and imagination, and a gripping story of desire and obsession, Ghostwalk is a rare debut that will change the way most of us think about scientific innovation, the force of history, and time itself.
"To concoct this cerebral thriller about 17th-century alchemy, Rebecca Stott grinds two parts of historical research into a fine powder, folds in some human blood, adds a pinch of the occult, and heats the mixture over an open flame. By the time 'Ghostwalk' begins to boil, it's a hypnotic brew of speculation, intrigue and murder. Stott teaches English at Cambridge University, where 'Ghostwalk'... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) takes place, but she's grown interested in the history of science, and her first novel sets off in search of the philosopher's stone, that elusive substance that can transform base facts into golden fiction. Her story rests on the striking incongruity of Isaac Newton's career: The genius we remember as the author of 'Principia,' the inventor of calculus, arguably the father of the Enlightenment, wasted most of his life feverishly searching for alchemic secrets in the Bible and other ancient texts. Despite his revolutionary work on the nature of light and gravity, he saw no distinction between what we would call science and the occult. And in the same way, 'Ghostwalk' blends history and make-believe. It's outlandish and devilishly plausible. At the opening, Cameron Brown, a top neuroscientist, discovers his mother drowned in a lake, clutching a glass prism. She was an iconoclastic historian finishing a biography of Newton. Determined to see the book published, Cameron begs his ex-lover, a historian named Lydia Brooke, to pick up his mother's research and ghostwrite the final chapters. Lydia claims she no longer has feelings for Cameron, but who can resist a serial adulterer in a lab coat? She accepts the assignment, moves into his mother's remote cabin and begins reading her unfinished manuscript. Although Stott obviously knows a great deal about Newton, she should have brushed up on his First Law: A story in motion should stay in motion. But after a deliciously macabre preface, 'Ghostwalk' loses its momentum, becomes an object at rest and tends to stay at rest till about page 50, when it finally starts up again. This slow exposition will flush out most of the 'Da Vinci Code' readers, but persist: You'll be enthralled by what develops. Lydia learns that before Cameron's mother died, she had been driven half mad by what she had discovered about a string of suspicious deaths around Cambridge in the mid-17th century. Apparently, Newton compiled a rather ordinary academic record as a student, but he managed to secure an appointment at Trinity College after a surprising number of positions suddenly 'opened up.' Meanwhile, modern-day Cambridge is being terrorized by violent animal rights activists who identify themselves as 'NABED' — a code word from one of Newton's alchemic journals. Lydia becomes convinced that there's a connection between the deaths that facilitated Newton's professional success three centuries ago and the attacks on Cameron's research lab. But the nature of that connection is at first so obscure and then so ludicrous that she resists believing it. Stott drops mystical elements into the story with such subtlety that you're likely to dismiss them (just as Lydia does) as tricks of her tired mind: a strange aroma, a stain that fades and reappears, 'a pool of light that moved in strange ways across a wall,' a bound cat mutilated on the doorstep. OK, that last one isn't so subtle, but eventually Lydia realizes that she's working in a place where 'the natural bleeds into the supernatural.' She's caught 'between the seventeenth century and the twenty-first, between skepticism and belief.' In an unnerving, strangely beautiful scene, she seems to see the outlines of 17th-century Cambridge and catch a glimpse of a red-cloaked professor. Does the hardworking historian just need a nap, or has a 360-year-old mathematician taken a deadly interest in her? Will she be hit on the head by an apple or by an apple cart? Among the surprising pleasures of 'Ghostwalk' are a couple of chapters from the biography in progress — complete with footnotes to actual histories and archival material. The section that explains how a glass prism was manufactured in Venice and eventually delivered to Newton in the 1660s is particularly fascinating and endows the novel with the kind of authenticity that makes its more speculative elements even creepier. And who's to say the distinction between science and the occult isn't collapsing? Lydia notes that quantum mechanics speaks of 'charms,' 'spooky action' and 'non-local entanglement.' A 17th-century alchemist would feel right at home in modern-day Cambridge. And apparently one of them is trying that out, but I'm not giving anything away. I'm not even sure I could (and I was taking notes). By the final chapter, Stott's elegant subtlety has been transmuted into a violent swirl of reversals and revelations that would defy Newton's calculus. You can't help but feel swept away. Ron Charles is senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Amanda SchafferDaniel StashowerMichael TomaskyPerri KlassJonathan YardleyJohn SimonChip CrewsMichael DirdaRobert PinskyJabari AsimRon Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Stott's compelling style acts as a counterpoint to the scientific and historical components of this haunting literary mystery/thriller. Stott skillfully binds fact with fiction in an insightful story that surprises and intrigues." Kirkus Reviews
"A beautifully written book, mixing a compelling contemporary love story and a fascinating historical investigation, with Isaac Newton and alchemy playing a crucial role. The mystery at the novel's center is audacious, convincing, and will make readers think anew about what history is." Iain Pears, author of An Instance of the Fingerpost
"Stott moves between past and present with the page-turning dexterity of a literary alchemist — a novel of intrigue as cleverly imagined as it is entertaining." Joseph Kanon, author of The Good German, The Prodigal Spy, and Los Alamos
"A dangerous love story and mystery, where after a time neither the reader nor the heroine can tell what is true. You slip through the shimmering prose and fall into the alchemy of Newton and certain unsolved crimes of his time until you begin to wonder if what happened then can affect what might happen now. Blending contemporary quantum physics with the winding streets of ancient Cambridge, Ghostwalk is a highly intelligent and original novel." Stephanie Cowell, author of Nicholas Cooke and The Physician of London
"An amazing work — a highly intelligent thriller that combines the supernatural with modern quantum theory, the current war on terror with Isaac Newton's work on light and gravity, and his delving into alchemy in the seventeenth century. At once mind-boggling and mind-expanding." Nicholas Mosley, author of Hopeful Monsters and Time at War
"Ghostwalk works beautifully...leaving a lingering impression of a world richer, and more precarious, than we imagine." Los Angeles Times
"[Rebecca Stott] manages to invoke both the non-causal entanglements of quantum physics and the paranoid conspiracies of Pynchon and DeLillo." New York Times
A stunningly original display of scholarship and imagination, and a gripping story of desire and obsession, Stott's novel is a rare debut that will change the way many readers think about scientific innovation, the force of history, and time itself.
About the Author
Rebecca Stott is a professor at Anglia Ruskin University and is affiliated with the Cambridge Department of the History and Philosophy of Science. She is the author of several books, including a biography, Darwin and the Barnacle, and is a regular contributor to BBC radio. She lives in Cambridge, England. This is her first novel.
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