Friday, April 29, 2011

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor — 432 pgs

The Anatomy of GhostsJohn Holdsworth is having a tough time making ends meet. Living in 1780’s London, Holdsworth was once able to provide for his family through the ownership of a modest bookstore, supplementing that income from the authorship of a book called The Anatomy of Ghosts. But recently things have turned sour for Holdsworth, as both his wife and young son have drowned within weeks of each other, and his property has been taken from him. Just when he thinks all is lost, he’s granted an audience with Lady Anne Oldershaw, one of the most prominent members of society. When Holdsworth meets Lady Anne, she initially asks him to help her decide what to to with the library her husband left behind, but that’s not really all she wants. It turns out that Lady Anne’s young son Frank, once a student at Jerusalem College, has recently gone mad and is now housed in a private sanitarium. Lady Anne wants Holdsworth to get to the bottom of Frank’s apparent mental instability by secretly infiltrating the college under the guise of investigating the library. But when Holdsworth begins his covert operation, he discovers a new and bizarre world of 18th century academia, where the social classes are sharply divided and where devious secret societies have unnatural power. Uncovering what made Frank go mad that spring evening soon becomes a dangerous occupation, not only for Holdsworth but for all those associated with him at the college as well. In addition to all the shady business going on at the college, there is more than one instance of a ghost appearing, making Holdsworth the perfect choice for this difficult assignment. But what is really going on behind all these locked doors, and is Holdsworth really prepared for all he will find? In this gripping and intense historical mystery, Taylor takes us on a tour of 18th century London academia, grime and seediness notwithstanding.

Though this was a rather long book, I found myself quickly absorbed with the story and aching to discover just what was going on in this strange and twisted tale. Like the best offerings of historical fiction, this book elucidated on a subject and place that many may not know a lot about. Taylor kept things very interesting by throwing in various plot twists and intrigues throughout the narrative, which really kept me on my toes. I was surprised by a lot of things and found that the more attention I gave to it, the deeper I was caught in this peculiar and involving tale.

One of the things I found fascinating about this book was also something I took a little bit of exception to. The role that women played seemed at times faintly misogynistic, and I was unsure if this was an attempt to be true to the time and place or if it came as a reflection he author’s attitudes. The women ran the gamut from genteel and respectable to loose and sexually wayward, but whatever their circumstances were, it felt like they got very little respect in the text. I reiterate in saying that I’m almost certain that Taylor does this in attempt to faithfully recreate the world of 18th century London, but for a modern female reader, there was a lot that made me uncomfortable about it. The women portrayed here were mostly treated with disrespect or mollified, and even the secondary heroine was left to stew with her thoughts for most of the book instead of being placed in the central narrative. This was ostensibly a man’s book, being that it dealt intimately with men and men’s concerns, and I being that it was set in a men’s college, I could see the importance of writing it this way, though it did rebuff me at times.

One of the things that I liked best was the way the story was so expertly involved and that Taylor was so adept at managing several plot points convincingly. There were may characters here and at times it was difficult to keep them all straight, but, luckily, there is a character index right at the beginning of the book where it’s bound to be seen. This story had elements of suspense right alongside the history which I think is one of the things that made it so successful for me. I really got the feeling that I was peeking into a world long past in addition to being entertained and mystified by the secrets that were going on at the college, and found myself reading speedily to discover how all of the intrigue would boil down. I think it was particularly clever for Taylor to highlight the differences between the wealthy students and teachers and the ones who were there by scholarship and graft because it enabled the reader to get an idea of the class differences in that society. I have to say that I’m rather fond of reading about how the underprivileged got along during those times, and was very interested in reading about their economies and their ability to rise among the ranks through sheer effort alone.

I also really liked Holdsworth and felt that he was the perfect character to star in this story. I found him to be rather intelligent, and his intellectual deductions seemed very organic and believable. I also liked that his attitude was always above reproach and that he was so polite. I began to see that his job would have been all that much harder if he didn’t maintain a veneer of respectability, and in more than one instance, his habit of holding his tongue served him well in creating a confidante instead of an enemy. Holdsworh was universally liked and trusted, and this reader felt the same emotions for him. Because of Taylor’s ability to write a character who was so agreeable yet so inquisitive, the narrative took on a lot of shape and piquancy. Leaving the rascals to be rascals, Holdsworth maneuvered around them deftly and with good regard, which caused the other more malign characters to let their guards down around him. I’m not embarrassed to say that Holdsworth was my favorite aspect of the book and that he was a great character with which to share an adventure.

Though this book was puzzling in its regards to women, overall I found it to be very absorbing and gratifying. The conclusion leaves some ends to be tied up, which I also liked, and I’ve been wondering if this is the first book in a proposed series. If it is, I’m thinking I’ll continue on with it because it’s the type of book that’s not only readable, but that focuses on a character whom I found delightful and fresh. Those lovers of historical fantasy wit a little meat on its bones would probably love this book, and despite its length, it’s easy to fly through the pages and be utterly compelled by the story it has to tell.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

19 comments:

Audra said...

Fantastic review -- I hadn't heard of this book but I'm very curious. I appreciate your thoughts about the misogyny reflected in the story -- in the Q&A with Allende about her pro-conquistador story she said that in order for a story to work, you have to pick a side. I suppose for the era this novel is set, the characters wouldn't be looking out/sympathetic toward women?

Anyway, the 'warning' is good so I won't get too frothy -- this book has me v intrigued!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Interesting that Audra brought up Allende, because in Daughter of Fortune, although women were not given much creedence, her women were strong creatures that didn't really give a crap what society dictated. And I love that. So I can totally relate with your reaction. Kinda makes you feel yucky, even if it is realistic.

Suko said...

Zibilee, terrific review, as usual. I can tell that you enjoyed this book, although you seemed to dislike the way women were treated by the characters and the author.

Trisha said...

What a fantastic review! This is definitely one for the wish list. It sounds wonderfully atmospheric.

Jenny said...

Andrew Taylor's books sound nice and Gothic but not entirely unproblematic -- this isn't the first review of one of his books I've read that made it sound totally cool and fun, and yet also possibly very irritating. :p

Jenny said...

I'd probably feel the same way about the attitude towards women but otherwise it sounds fantastic!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I loved reading your thoughts on this one Heather. I donated this book (unread) sadly, and now I am sorry I did that. I better look through the 2 other bags for the library booksale as well.

TheBookGirl said...

It certainly sounds like there is a lot going on in this one, but the author seems to be able to juggle all the storylines well. This is an interesting niche -- 18th cent. London academe is not something that I've ever read about before...

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have this but í don´t know if the treatment of women would be too alienating for me!

Marie said...

Sounds like a fun one. It's always great when a book leaves you wanting more like that!

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I agree, this one sounds really great. I'm a huge historical fiction fan.

I received the book this week! Thanks again.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

"A strange and twisted tale" -- yes! As I read your first paragraph the phrase "twists and turns" came to mind.

Interesting analysis of the role (and treatment) of women in the book. Can it be excused as a statement of the time in which the book is set?

Zibilee said...

Dawn, I am starting to think that is exactly what it was.

Darlene said...

Great review Heather. I've seen a few reviews on this one and I think it's something I may like.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

Oh I must get a copy of this one! I have not heard of it either, but I do love a good historical (mystery) fiction novel - those are my absolute favorites! This one sounds like it would not disappoint - a mystery that involves a college and a library and mental illness - wow, what could be better than that?!? Fantastic review!

Aarti said...

Never heard of this one, though it is definitely set in a period that I love! The treatment of women makes me pause, but I wonder if I should give it a shot, anyway.

Geosi said...

This is a much desired book to look out for. Wonderful review.

Amy said...

I missed this review of yours somehow but I'm so glad I finally read it. I have this book in my tbr pile and just haven't managed to read it yet. Youreview has me captivated and I want to sit down & read it now. I'm also wondering how I will find the women characters. I think in the time in which the book is set, women were more considered property or a possession so maybe that has something to do with the misogynistic view point?!

I'm also happy there's a character index in the beginning as it sounds like it will come in handy. This book definitely has many themes I love reading about!

Thank you for a great review!

Ozzie Maland said...

I liked the review, and I felt that the accusation of 18th century misogynism is well taken. Mr Taylor needs to tie up loose ends in at least one sequel.

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