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Friday, June 17, 2011

The Anatomy of Ghosts, by Andrew Taylor (hardcover, $24.99)

The last book I read by Andrew Taylor was his first, Caroline Minuscule, and that was about 25 years ago. I'm sorry I waited so long because he's good.

Set in fictional Jerusalem College, Cambridge, England, in 1786, Taylor has constructed a period piece that, yay!, isn't awkwardly styled or stuffed with lessons for the reader to learn.

John Holdsworth has suffered tragedy early in his life and finds himself almost penniless and friendless. Because of a book he has written, The Anatomy of Ghosts -- I know, a little too twee, perhaps -- he receives a commission to help a wealthy woman's son who thinks he has seen a ghost. John travels to Cambridge, and finds young Frank Oldershaw strapped down and tortured by a "modern" man of medicine. Effecting Frank's release, John attempts to cure him. "Quack, quack" Frank says in answer to many things, then dives into a nearby river. (That's about the only humorous thing in the book, and it's actually creepily humorous at that.)

The ghost Frank thought he saw was of the recently deceased wife of Philip Whichcote, a former student at Jerusalem and current head of one of the college's dining clubs with its underlying secret society. John Holdsworth receives help from Mr. and Mrs. Carbury, the Master of Jerusalem and his wife. There are a few other notable characters, but Taylor, thank goodness, keeps his dramatis personae at a manageable level. (In the old-fashioned way that I wish had never gone out of fashion, he lists the cast of characters.)

Holdsworth represents the scientific mind, intolerant of all ghosts and things that go bump in the night. At the same time, Taylor provides the requisite ghost-appropriate setting: misty gardens; winding and dim passages; things flitting at the edge of one's vision; gloom, disorder, tragedy, and pain hanging over all. Although he is not a college-educated man, Holdsworth fits into Jerusalem surprisingly well. Despite his tragic background, he provides a mostly neutral point from which to view the other characters and situations.

This is not modern Cambridge. As Taylor says in his afterword, "The eighteenth century was not a glorious period for English universities," and in only his second piece of humor in the entire book, he adds, "by and large they managed things better in Scotland." Instead of a look at the scholarly search for truth, this book is a look into the dysfunction of a society lanced by class consciousness, at a skewed morality propped up by a hail-fellow-well-met mentality.

I lied about there being no humor, so lastly, here's an example of that humor:
"Trust youth to turn an episode of drunken adultery into a three-volume novel and present it to you before breakfast."
"Holdsworth no longer wanted to laugh. For where in God's name was the humor in a weeping boy and a drowned woman? Or, for that matter, in a pair of Barbary slippers and a gilt button bearing the motto Sans souci?"

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