Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

January 25, 2011
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Anatomy of Ghosts
Andrew Taylor

Hyperion
1-25-11
Hardcover/432 pages
ISBN: 978-1401302870
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". . .emotionally luxurious . . ."

A moody 18th century ghost story that plumbs the depths of grief and emotional expectations.

John Holdsworth’s wife Maria and his son Georgie drowned within sight of their home. Georgie’s drowned and battered body was retrieved from the Thames, sending Maria to mediums to assure her that her son was in heaven and waiting for her. Maria’s descent into melancholy and near madness prompts John to research and debunk mediums and other fakes preying on the bereaved, culminating in his screed, The Anatomy of Ghosts, to prove to Maria her grief has overturned her mind and that she is being defrauded.

In the wake of a violent physical outburst from John, at the end of his tether, Maria goes into the river and is drowned. Business falls off and John finds himself in straightened circumstances that put him at the mercy of an old friend’s wife who wants him out of his, and now their, house, sending him into Lady Anne Oldershaw’s path to help cure her son, now at University in Cambridge, of his madness and claims of seeing ghosts. To sweeten the deal, she offers Mr. Holdsworth a chance to catalogue and value a well know book collection, but first he has two weeks to cure her son of his insistence he has seen ghosts.

Andrew Taylor begins his mystery with Holdsworth’s devastation over his son and wife’s deaths and his descent into near penury, emphasizing the financial decline and putting him in a position where Holdsworth is indebted to a friend and at the mercy of his friend’s shrewd wife. Without these incidents, there would be no need for Holdsworth to fall under Lady Anne’s control or to face his own ghosts so immediately. It is not, however, the spectral realm that Taylor seeks to illuminate, but the realm of the heart as he works his way through the mystery surrounding Frank Oldershaw’s madness and his violent attacks against friends and medical staff. There is obviously more afoot than a young man far from home lost to madness in the wake of a woman’s drowning at Jerusalem College at Cambridge, so much more.

The separations of the classes, especially in the university environs, and the manners and morals of its inhabitants provide The Anatomy of Ghosts with a strained emotional environment that informs and highlights every character’s actions. Holdsworth, newly widowed and from outside the insular community of the college, becomes confidante to several of the characters much like a sun around which the planets of the other characters’ actions revolve. Holdsworth provides a stable center in the midst of rising and falling chaos even as Holdsworth’s emotions are spinning dangerously out of control.

Taylor takes what seems like a meandering journey through Jerusalem and Cambridge, stopping here and there to drop crumbs and oddments of immoral and dissipated lives, while driving directly toward a solution of the mystery surrounding Sylvia Whichcote’s death and Frank Oldershaw’s madness. To say too much would give away the game.

Writing in a manner more suited to the eighteenth century and in keeping with the tone and circumstances of the time, Taylor immerses the reader in minutiae, all of which are pieces to a convoluted puzzle with a surprising resolution. Taylor’s writing is clean and sparse without too much detail, concentrating on the characters and their motivations with just enough detail to give form to university life. He spares no sentiment for any single character and yet still makes each memorable while parceling out clues along the path.

I found the characters fascinating and the situation believable without being maudlin or overly scientific. The writing, while modern, effortlessly evokes the period and the tenor of life among academics. The Anatomy of Ghosts was emotionally luxurious with a slow and measured pace that equally satisfying and intriguing.
Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell

 

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