- Published on Amazon.com
Two things immediately become obvious after reading the first few pages of GHOSTHEART. The first is that it is beautifully, even exquisitely, written. Those who have experienced the depth of the quality of R.J. Ellory’s literary work will not find this surprising. The second is that Ellory proceeds at his own pace when he proceeds at all.
GHOSTHEART was initially published in 2004 and is being released in hardcover in the United States for the first time. I would guess that it was written a good three or four years before that, given that the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers is not even afforded a mention during the narrative. eBooks are also the stuff of science fiction, more or less. As a result, the story seems older than it really is, which, in the instant case, is a good thing.
The opening passages introduce an attractive and literate but lonely 30-year-old woman named Annie O’Neill, who lives in New York and owns a bookstore called The Reader’s Rest on the Upper West Side. Originally owned by Annie’s long-absent father, The Reader’s Rest is the type of bookstore that anyone who enjoys reading would love to have around the corner from them, a jumble of unorganized used hardcovers and paperbacks that demand browsing and an open-mindedness that eschews genre-shopping. Annie has a couple of older male friends who are a bit odd but loyal and harmless.
Lest one thinks that they have stumbled into Howards End, things pick up when an elderly, enigmatic gentleman named Robert Franklin Forrester enters the store and introduces himself as a friend of Annie’s father. He offers Annie pieces of her past, doled out weekly in the form of letters from her father to her more recently deceased mother, as well as a manuscript. The latter, chapter by chapter, is an account of a man who took three different names over the course of his lifetime and went from a concentration camp survivor during World War II to a New York crime lord in the 1950s and ’60s. This book within a book is not for the faint-hearted, especially in its opening chapter, which is unrelentingly cringe-inducing in its descriptions of inhumanity. Still, it provides a counterpoint to the steady, monotonous hum of Annie’s existence, which threatens to quietly drown her in its own ennui.
However, that frozen lake is broken with the appearance of another customer, a man named David Quinn, who upends Annie’s passive social life and shows her things she has never seen before. Forrester, meanwhile, makes his weekly appearances, with more chapters of the manuscript and occasional letters, all the while seemingly putting Annie off when she raises the subject of her father. There is much to be revealed, and, as Annie soon learns, there are some things better left unlearned. Or is there such a thing? The book, in its way, provides the answer.
GHOSTHEART is definitely climax-driven. Ellory sets off a chain reaction at the end of the book that is still merrily exploding as the reader reaches the last page. While not representative of Ellory’s other work, it is beautifully written. I’m not entirely in agreement with its classification as a thriller --- certainly it is a domestic drama, with a twist or five --- but, like The Reader’s Rest, it is probably best not to quibble over genres. This is not a book I would reflexively give to someone as an introduction to Ellory, but those, like myself, who insist on reading everything he writes ultimately will not be disappointed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub