Historical Fiction: The Anatomy of Ghosts, by Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of GhostsThe bookman 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Holdsworth, former rare book dealer, is a haunted man. Having lost first his child, then his wife, in separate drowning accidents, his business has also gone under. Mrs. Holdsworth, before her apparent suicide, was obsessed with the idea that her son’s spirit was communing with her, and when she dies, Holdsworth writes a monograph, The Anatomy of Ghosts, debunking their existence. John is floundering pretty badly when an unexpected offer of employment comes his way. Lady Anne Oldershaw, who has read his monograph, wishes to engage his services for two purposes, to organize her late husband’s library, and to save her son Frank, a Cambridge undergrad, from apparent madness – he is convinced he’s seen a ghost, and is currently housed in an asylum for the insane.

Dealing with the library is a straightforward task, but dealing with Frank is another matter entirely. What happened the night Frank encountered the “ghost”? Is the apparition that of Sylvia Whichcote, who drowned in the college pond that same night? How and why did she drown? Holdsworth resolves to find answers to those questions, and during his pursuit of the truth, encounters many more little secrets.

Author Taylor sets his mystery at “Jerusalem College”, a walled conclave in which only two women reside. It is an atmospheric, somewhat furtive community, with a code of ethics very much its own. Holdsworth, the outsider, is forced to turn over many rocks before he can piece together a theory about what actually happened the night Frank Oldershaw had his breakdown. He also must deal, contemporaneously, with his own ghosts, in a decidedly unsympathetic climate. Taylor presents an uncompromising portrait of late 18th century society, in which a callous aristocracy keeps a heavy foot on the neck of the underclass. His central question, whether haunting a two way street that “flows in both directions” between haunter and haunted, is the spark that makes this story a compelling one. Andrew Taylor is a masterful British author who deserves more attention from American readers.

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