Book Review: Robert Harris' The Ghost

Robert Harris´ 2007 thriller The Ghost takes revenge on his one-time political hero

TVR Books | Dardis McNamee | April 2010

Haunted By the Past

"A novel takes a year to write, much too long for revenge," says the writer in Graham Greene’s The End of an Affair. Journalist and author Robert Harris would probably agree; in fact he is said to have turned out his 2007 thriller The Ghost in only five months, settling a score of disillusionment with a one-time political hero, who he felt had let him down.

The Ghost is a thinly veiled roman a clef that pulls very few punches. With a page-turner plot swirling around a ghostwriter and a former British prime minister bearing a striking resemblance to Tony Blair, it leaves behind a fallen hero whose reputation is damaged beyond repair. And while the final plot twists veer far from reality, this fictional former PM is fatally compromised in ways that feel strikingly familiar.

As a reporter for the BBC, Robert Harris had been a huge fan of Blair and New Labour in the early days, to a degree he admitted was "almost compromising for a journalist." On election night in 1997, according to The Guardian, Harris, then a columnist for the Sunday Times, was the only journalist at Tony Blair’s side watching the results come in.

But Blair’s decision to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq changed all that, and Harris clearly never forgave him.

In The Ghost, a former British prime minister Adam Lang is indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for having authorized the renditions of four Pakistani-born British citizens, who were then spirited off to a secret prison in Poland and tortured.

Always surrounded by a team of advisors made up of his savvy (and sexy) political wife Ruth, his high-shine assistant Amelia Bly, and his I’ll-make-this-work-for-you attorney Sidney Kroll, Lang himself is enigmatic.  Like Blair, he is a charismatic figure from humble beginnings, who went on to Cambridge (Blair: Oxford) and was a near-success in the theater (Blair: rock and roll), before turning his charm toward a career in politics. And like Blair, the talk around No.10 Downing Street is that Lang’s wife is smarter than he is.

And through the prospective ghostwritten, bare-your-soul autobiography, we are tantalized with the prospect of finding out who this guy really is.

"Why don’t we try to make this book unlike any other political memoir that’s ever been written? Why don’t we tell the truth?" the ghostwriter suggests.  Lang laughs. "Now that would be a first." The ghostwriter pushes: "Let’s tell people what it really feels like to be prime minister. Not just the policy stuff – any old bore can write that. Let’s stick to what no one except you knows… What it’s like to be hated?"

Roman Polanski’s decision to turn The Ghost into his latest screen event – though it was not a top box office hit – must be understood as a minor public relations disaster for Blair. It’s just too much fun to be ignored.

Through the ghostwriter – whose voice narrates the story and whose name is never mentioned – we get a window directly into the back rooms of power. Reminiscent of the anonymous narrator of Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca, he is defined by his ability to please, to be a mirror to the lives of others.  And he’s good at it.

So what do you bring to the project, the publisher asks the ghostwriter.

" ‘Ignorance,’ I said brightly, which at least had the benefit of shock value." At which point Harris goes on to describe with tidy eloquence just what makes good popular fiction work.

"This is Adam Lang’s opportunity… to get his case across," the ghostwriter tells his potential clients. "The fact is, a big name alone doesn’t sell a book. We’ve all learned that the hard way. What sells a book – or a movie, or a song – is heart."

Our ghostwriter is no hero and we like him for it. Appealingly flawed, he keeps trying to hold on to some version of integrity, although it is not always clear what that would be. To accommodate the pressure and whim of high-pressure politics and the torments of inescapable celebrity, he juggles impossible egos and jumps through unreachable hoops, ultimately agreeing to cut an already impossible deadline in half.

He negotiates the shoals of a cynical publisher who sees Lang’s indictment as a ticket to increased sales, and a once-proud editor who "received his orders direct from the head of sales and marketing, a girl of about sixteen."

What does it matter, when they’re paying him a quarter of million for a month’s work? And anyway, he signed a confidentiality agreement.

In the end, The Ghost is simply a great read, seductive escapist fiction that is also a novel of ideas, absorbing from the first page and nearly impossible to put down.

This is the kind of book people read in the subway and waiting in line at the supermarket, the kind of book that easily pushes out whatever blear and drear is darkening your horizon at the moment, and at the same time gets you thinking about things that matter – in this case, the nature of leadership and power, the creative process and an insider glimpse of the realities of being a professional writer.


The Ghost

By Robert Harris

Hutchinson, London (2007)

Available at

The British Bookshop

1., Weihburggasse 24-26

(01) 512 1945 0

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