Ghostwalk – a novel of ideas

Ghostwalk book cover

Lydia Brooke, a writer and the book’s central character, is returning to Cambridge from her home in Brighton to attend the funeral of an old friend. Elizabeth Vogelsang had been found dead, floating Ophelia-like in a small river next to her home, by her son, Cameron Brown, a distinguished neuroscientist – and former lover of Lydia. Her death was not considered suspicious although she was clutching a glass prism, an unexplained and early hint of Newton’s transcendent role in the story.

During the funeral in the Leper Chapel in Cambridge, Lydia meets Dilys Kite, an enigmatic old friend of Elizabeth. Dilys, it later transpires, is a medium and occultist who reappears to play a significant role.

I have been intrigued for many years by the ancient Leper Chapel in Cambridge, which I first noticed on visits to support my home-town football team when they played at the Abbey Stadium, Cambridge United’s ground, on the opposite side of the Newmarket Road. Sadly it was never open during one of my football visits so I was unable to combine two of my personal pleasures, watching football and visiting old churches.”

Deaths unexplained

Elizabeth had been investigating Newton’s links to, and interest in, alchemy. The project was unfinished and, during a meal with Cameron Brown, Lydia is reluctantly persuaded to complete it. To accomplish this, Lydia moves into Elizabeth’s home, a riverside studio with an apple orchard, built on the site of an old glassworks. She also resumes her relationship with Cameron Brown.

While researching Newton’s groundbreaking experiments with, and theories about, light and colour – and his interest in alchemy – Elizabeth had uncovered details about the largely unexplained deaths of five young men who were contemporaries of Newton at the time he was aspiring (and scheming perhaps?) to be the next Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. The central chapters of Ghostwalk contain fascinating, historically and scientifically accurate, descriptions of Newton’s discoveries extracted from Elizabeth’s manuscript; these are beautifully illustrated.

Light and colour

Also included are Newton’s experiences of the plague and a description of how he sought and obtained a prism of the purest glass; the account of its journey from Murano to Cambridge via various seas, ports and rivers is enthralling.

I have managed two visits to Newton’s birthplace and family home at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire. There is much of interest including graffiti which is thought to be Newton’s handiwork, the famous apple tree and a reconstruction of his celebrated optics experiment splitting white light into its component colours using a glass prism.”

Drawing from MS361 of the Newton papers, illustrating Newton’s famous discovery of the spectrum of white light. By kind permission of the Warden & Fellows, New College, Oxford
Drawing from MS361 of the Newton papers, illustrating Newton’s famous discovery of the spectrum of white light. By kind permission of the Warden & Fellows, New College, Oxford

While working on Elizabeth’s manuscript, strange lights flicker and a persistent, unsettling atmosphere in the studio culminates in the death of a pet cat. It seems that someone is trying to deter Lydia from completing her task. Meanwhile in Cambridge a secretive and violent group of animal liberationists are terrorising the city with their campaign against animal experimentation (particularly the sort being carried out by Cameron Brown and his associates). Their campaign so far has evolved from hard-hitting graffiti to animal mutilation and murder.

Times entangled

Ghostwalk has two parallel strands occurring during the 17th and 21st centuries respectively. Possible 17th century crimes are mirrored by definite 21st century crimes. A distinguished 17th century scientist has his counterpart in the 21st century. Both scientists are involved in branches of science usually viewed with some suspicion and disrepute, alchemy for Isaac Newton and animal experimentation in Cameron Brown’s case. These two strands, however, are not separated but instead are deftly interwoven such that often the 17th and 21st centuries are fused into one nebulous timeframe. There are evocative descriptions of 17th century and 21st century Cambridge and, again, both are cleverly interwoven.

According to the OED a palimpsest is “a manuscript in which a later writing is written over an effaced earlier writing” thus Lydia’s work on Elizabeth’s manuscript is an almost-literal palimpsest. In Ghostwalk historical events are superimposed upon Cambridge over four centuries making the city a metaphorical, geographical palimpsest. Lydia believed that this was how Elizabeth thought of Cambridge: “time layered upon time so that one buried layer leaks into the one above.”

Old Cambridge map
Map of Cambridge, drawn by George Braun in 1575.

Anyone with an interest in historical, scientific fiction (not science fiction – a rather different genre!) will find this book absorbing. The attention to historic and scientific detail is meticulous, the result of painstaking research. Despite this fact, no scientific qualification is required to appreciate this beautifully written tale (as my wife can attest). Ghostwalk, a narrative spanning four centuries of mystery, intrigue and murder, is readily accessible to anyone who enjoys clever, intricate and evocative story-telling.

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott is published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and in paperback by Phoenix. An extract from it is featured in our People and Ideas section.

About the author

Derek Ward

Derek Ward was born in Kingston-upon-Hull, the 2017 City of Culture – “whose football team is still, sadly, an obsession for me.” A science degree at the University of Durham in the late sixties was followed by a career teaching physics, first near Durham, then in Norfolk until retirement several years ago. Now living in Suffolk with his wife, his interests include walking and cycling, visiting old churches and reading, especially historical, scientific fact or fiction.