Publisher: Hyperion (January 25, 2011)
The Muse Reviews Rating: 3 Laurels
1786, Jerusalem College Cambridge. The ghost of Sylvia Whichcote is rumoured to be haunting Jerusalem since disturbed fellow-commoner, Frank Oldershaw, claims to have seen the dead woman prowling the grounds. Desperate to salvage her son’s reputation, Lady Anne Oldershaw employs John Holdsworth, author of The Anatomy of Ghosts — a stinging account of why ghosts are mere delusion — to investigate. But his arrival in Cambridge disrupts an uneasy status quo as he glimpses a world of privilege and abuse, where the sinister Holy Ghost Club governs life at Jerusalem more effectively than the Master, Dr Carbury, ever could. And when Holdsworth finds himself haunted — not only by the ghost of his dead wife, Maria, but also Elinor, the very-much-alive Master’s wife — his fate is sealed. He must find Sylvia’s murderer or the hauntings will continue. And not one of them will leave the claustrophobic confines of Jerusalem unchanged.
I received an ARC of this novel through a banner ad in Shelf Awareness ezine. I love historical novels and anything to do with the paranormal, so I was looking forward to reading The Anatomy of Ghosts. This was my first experience with Andrew Taylor's work, but he's an accomplished writer, so my expectations were high. Although I enjoyed The Anatomy of Ghosts, it didn't live up to those expectations.
The majority of the story takes place in 18th Century England, in a fictional college on the grounds of Cambridge University and in the surrounding city. On the plus side, The Anatomy of Ghosts is firmly rooted in the period. The dialogue felt very natural to the characters and the era. I could tell Andrew Taylor put a significant amount of research into his book. At the same time, the story explores the idea that our "ghosts" have more to do with our own feelings than with the supernatural - a theme so universal that the action could take place at any time in any setting and still work.
Unfortunately, the prologue and first two chapters are disjointed and confusing. It's a good thing the front matter includes a map of the college and a character list, because I had to keep flipping to them to figure out who characters were and how they related to the rest of the cast. Likewise, I had to study the map repeatedly because the description of the grounds doesn't quite match up to the sketch.
The plot development of The Anatomy of Ghosts is slow. Taylor spends way too much time on Holdsworth's family and financial situation before getting to the meat of the mystery. The main characters talk around issues when much of the conflict could be resolved with a straight-forward conversation. However, the languid pace of the plot is one of the devices that helps root the audience in the culture so I can forgive it. Other quibbles I had with The Anatomy of Ghosts include some cliched minor characters, entirely too much time spent describing bodily functions in excruciating detail, and an ambiguous ending better suited to literary fiction than a mystery or thriller.
Fans of historical novels will enjoy The Anatomy of Ghosts but those looking for a thriller will be disappointed. If you're a fan of Andrew Taylor, then buy the book to add to your collection. Otherwise, I'd recommend borrowing it from the library before deciding whether or not to spend money on a copy.
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