Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost had considerable success in Britain where it was seen as a very thinly veiled roman a clef. The just-recently-ex PM in the book, Adam Lang, overlaps in almost every way (up to and including the same number of syllables in their names) with the just-recently-ex British PM Tony Blair.
Mr. Harris, in his former incarnation as a political journalist, had covered Blair for London’s Sunday Times. They had, in fact, achieved a closeness that Harris even considered “almost compromising”. And if the closeness was extremely close, the subsequent falling out was every bit as bitter.
Fortunately Mr. Harris is too good a story teller and too good a writer to let his bile get the better of him. No man is a hero to his valet, and the relationship between author and ghost has enough richness without letting off-the-page emotions intrude. And given that the genre is straightforward no frills thriller, the portrait of Prime Minister Lang that emerges is surprisingly complex and even convincing.
The set-up is neat, clean, and at least remotely plausible. Writing his mega-bucks memoirs on a very short deadline, PM Lang’s ghost writer —an old political ally— has the misfortune to be washed overboard on the ferry between Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. The frantic search for a replacement ghost produces the novel’s titular character (who, cleverly, remains unnamed), whose prior experience has been limited to enormously successful shamelessly inspiring potted autobiographies of over the hill footballers and once-debauched rockers.
The relationship between the host and the ghost starts out stilted. But when the latter suggests a literary approach that could enhance the former’s fraying reputation, things considerably warm up: “he was looking at me quite differently now: it was as if some electric lightbulb marked ‘self-interest’ had started to glow behind his eyes.” The writing throughout is often amusing and consistently smart.
Mr. Harris gets exactly right the experience shared by people who have known power in their past. The layman imagines that perhaps the greatest blessing retirement can confer on politicians is the opportunity to leave behind the exhausting, ruthless, and relentless pace of life on the public stage in the public eye. Quite the contrary — it is precisely that pressure and intensity that many if not most of them miss the most, and without which many just wither away.
President Nixon caught this vividly in his brief description of a conversation he had with President Tito of Yugoslavia. They were discussing how Churchill had managed to keep going for so long, and Tito (who was almost eighty at the time) exclaimed: “The secret is power! It’s power that keeps him young!”
The issues raised by and in The Ghost are, as the publicists would put it, torn from today’s headlines — including Iraq, rendition, Guantanamo, waterboarding, and mega-corporations beginning with H (although at least the one in the novel only has three syllables). It’s the perfect traveling companion for your next plane ride or for any rainy spring Sunday afternoon.
The Ghost, by Robert Harris, is published by Simon & Schuster. You can get more information and even read an excerpt here.