The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth, book of a lifetime


Harlan Coben
Friday 25 April 2014 18:23 BST

My favourite writer is Philip Roth. We were both born in Newark, New Jersey, both Jewish, both fell in love with shiksas. He is a generation older but the sad truth is, no one of my generation speaks to me the way Roth does.

The Ghost Writer is important to me for several reasons. For one thing, it introduces the narrator and quasi-Roth-alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, the brilliant, neurotic, compelling protagonist of nine of Roth's greatest novels. The Ghost Writer is set in 1956, but the shattering events echo all the way to 2004 and Zuckerman's final chapter, Exit Ghost. That's nearly a 50-year span.

But The Ghost Writer stands out to me for one very specific reason: the character of Amy Bellette. Wise, enthralling, and endlessly complicated, the question of her identity is at the heart of Roth's greatest and darkest mystery.

The story opens when Nathan Zuckerman, a 23-year-old writer of unlimited promise, spends the night at the home of his literary hero EI Lonoff. At one point, Lonoff tells Zuckerman all he needs to know about the writing life: "I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch."

Read that again. Right?

The Ghost Writer is energetic, engaging and beautifully written, but what separates it from some of Roth's others is that it is also, in a sense, a mystery novel. Here I return to Amy Bellette, Lonoff's comely assistant, a mysterious European war refugee just a few years older than Zuckerman. Mixing fact and fiction as only Roth can, Zuckerman starts to wonder about this young woman, her familiar looks, her past, her age, the way she carries herself. In the delirium of a sleepless night, Zuckerman thinks: could Amy Bellette be Anne Frank?

Could Anne Frank have escaped the Nazis and be hiding in the secluded hilltop home of Lonoff? It all fits, in an odd way. Zuckerman wants it to be true. So do we. This mystery behind her identity turns a brilliant novel into an even more propulsive one. A great literary book becomes a page-turner, too, and we are thirsting to find the answers.

Those answers are revealed at the end of The Ghost Writer – but only in part. As long-time Roth readers know, Zuckerman has to wait 48 years to learn all of Amy's secrets, when she reappears as an ill, elderly woman in Exit Ghost.

That's what I call a mystery.

Harlan Coben's 'Missing You' is published by Orion

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