Review in Publishers Weekly (Starred Review), April 2007

British historian Stott makes a stunning debut with this hypnotic and intelligent thriller, the first fiction release of a new Random House imprint. The mysterious drowning death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a Cambridge University scholar who was almost finished writing a controversial biography of Isaac Newton, leads her son, Cameron Brown, to recruit Lydia Brooke, his former lover, to complete the book. That request plunges Brooke into probing two ostensibly separate series of murders: one in the 17th century claimed the lives of several who stood between Newton and the fellowship he needed to continue his studies at Cambridge; the other in the present day appears to target those who have offended a radical animal rights group. Brooke’s work may be haunted by a ghost from Newton’s time who guides her to a radical reinterpretation of the role of alchemy and the supernatural in Newton’s life. Much more than a clever whodunit, this taut, atmospheric novel with its twisty interconnections between past and present will leave readers hoping Stott has many more stories in her future.


Review in the Los Angeles Times, May, 2007

‘Ghostwalk’ by Rebecca Stott
A series of deaths at Cambridge University echos mystery murders from Sir Isaac Newton’s time.

By Janice P. Nimura
Special to The Times, May 11, 2007

HISTORICAL fiction is a conjuring act: Choose a dead hero and a few facts, sprinkle with period detail, add a pinch of speculation, wave your wand and poof! Ghosts walk, scheme, fight and fall in love. When the last page is turned, the spell is broken and the vivid characters fade back into their footnotes.

British author Rebecca Stott sees it differently, and her fiercely intelligent first novel may convince you too. Ghostwalk opens with the death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a present-day Cambridge University historian found floating in the river at the bottom of her garden, a prism clutched in her hand. On her desk is an unfinished manuscript, an examination of Isaac Newton’s involvement in the clandestine network of 17th century alchemists. Her son, Cameron Brown, a celebrated neuroscientist, recruits his ex-lover, Lydia Brooke, to finish his mother’s book. Installed in Elizabeth’s odd little house, immersed in her work, Lydia discovers the heretical connections Elizabeth had drawn between Newton’s advancement and a string of suspicious deaths at Trinity College when he was a fellow. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s body seems to be one in a series of bodies turning up around Cambridge on the same dates as those in Newton’s time nearly 350 years before. To complicate matters, a radical cell of animal activists has targeted Cameron’s lab, threatening his colleagues and family with repeated acts of ritualized violence.

’Cambridge is just a palimpsest’, Elizabeth once told Lydia as they prowled the alleys of Stourbridge Fair. ‘Just one century laid upon another upon another. Nothing is ever quite lost while there are still a few old buildings standing sentinel. Time bleeds here, seeps, perhaps more than anywhere else in the city’. While walking to the library, Lydia glimpses a man in a red robe with long white hair. Newton? ‘There was a smudge around him. As if what I was seeing was something underneath the surface of my reality, as if someone had rubbed away the surface of my Cambridge’, Lydia marvels. History, Stott suggests, runs beneath the present, not dried up, but still flowing — and occasionally oozing through.

Instead of a reanimated Newton dancing to the rhythm of a contemporary novelist’s imagination, we get something better: a carefully researched vision of Cambridge circa 1665; a peek at the great scholar’s obsessive genius as he explores the laws of light and a real set of deaths left unresolved. There’s nothing fanciful here; it’s all backed up with footnotes and a bibliography. Passages from Elizabeth’s book explore the art of glassmaking, Newton’s experiments with prisms, the politics of academic promotion. Stott then places her historical landscape in a fictional frame — and lets her well-drawn contemporary characters become entangled in the past.

There are no spells, no secret passages. Instead Stott offers quantum mechanics to explain the resonance of past with present. Entanglement, as Cameron explains to Lydia, is a term used to describe the weird fact that when subatomic particles collide and move apart, ‘they retain a kind of connection’. Some physicists, he says, speculate that if ‘moments in time become entangled the way that photons become entangled, then there might be strange connections between the past and the present, moments in time acting in the same way, like the particles; one moment turns one way, the other follows — shadowing’. Was Elizabeth’s death the work of a 17th century alchemist or a 21st century activist?

The separation of science from alchemy, of the material from the spiritual, is a 20th century conceit, Stott points out. Newton pursued both as a matter of course, but modern scientists have forgotten how. ‘Science doesn’t reduce things, or explain mysteries away’, Cameron says, ‘it just discovers stranger and stranger things’. Stott discards the lead-into-gold silliness and tries to restore alchemy to grandeur and mystery: ‘It had a rare beauty, this secret hybrid art made up of magic, chemistry, philosophy, hermetic thought, sacred geometry, and cosmology, a beauty in that passion to make things bloom into a fuller being’, Lydia thinks as she looks through the pages of Elizabeth’s manuscript.

Newton tried desperately to keep that passion pure, writing encoded lists of his own sins in an attempt to root them out. The complicated and convincing passion that drives Lydia and Cameron is for knowledge and for each other, inextricably. The alchemy of souls, the author seems to say, is part of the continuum of all matter. Boundaries we take for granted may not exist.

Stott has a way of fondling a word — ‘to lie on, to lie under, to lie close, to lie in wait for’ — smearing its meaning to the point of bewilderment. Cambridge itself, ‘a city of keys and locked doors and private secret inner courtyards’, proves to be the perfect setting for such complexity and confusion.

But you won’t have time to reflect on Stott’s metaphysics, at least not on the first read — you’ll be too eager to solve the murders. Ghostwalk works beautifully on both levels, leaving a lingering impression of a world richer, and more precarious, than we imagine.

Janice P. Nimura is a New York-based critic whose work also has appeared in Newsday, the New York Times and the Washington Post.


Review in The New York Times, May 13, 2007

The Alchemy of Violence

The intellectual thriller, dripping with blood and erudition, was invented by Poe, refined by Borges and Umberto Eco, and eventually attained its popular apotheosis in The Da Vinci Code. By now, its cogs and pulleys are so familiar that seasoned readers don’t flinch at time travel, cryptography, a famous ghost or two and the rest of the shopworn gadgetry of the genre. Rebecca Stott’s intricately plotted Ghostwalk begins in the orthodox fashion, with a corpse, a clue and an armchair detective. But it also has a scholarly authority and imaginative sparkle all too rare in upscale pulp — or, for that matter, any kind of writing.

In this mesmerizing first novel, Stott, a historian of science at Anglia Ruskin University in England, has drawn on the traditional resource of historical fiction to fill tantalizing gaps in the archival record. Like Matthew Pearl in The Poe Shadow, she attempts to shed new light on the mysterious circumstances of a long-cold case. The suspicious deaths at the core of Ghostwalk occurred in and around Trinity College, Cambridge, during the 17th century, when the plague was at its peak and Isaac Newton was solving every scientific puzzle in sight. Newton, the red-robed Lucasian professor of mathematics who discovered, among other things, the spectrum of light and the rules of gravitation, is the pivotal figure around whom Stott’s double plot turns.

As the novel opens, an idiosyncratic Cambridge historian named Elizabeth Vogelsang has been researching Newton’s manifold ties to alchemy, the esoteric precursor of modern science. ‘She was using Newton as a way of showing how all those European alchemical networks and secret societies hung together’ and ‘wanted to challenge that myth of Newton as a lone genius, working completely in isolation’. When Vogelsang’s drowned body turns up, Ophelia-like, in the ‘river-riven landscape’ of the Cambridge fens, with a glass prism in her tightly clenched fist, it’s clear that she had stumbled onto something bigger than 17th-century alchemical networks.

Since Newton’s extensive investment in alchemy remains something of a scandal to those who wish to view him as a beacon of the Enlightenment, Vogelsang’s research project is perfectly plausible. Or so it seems to Lydia Brooke, a freelance writer and former lover of Vogelsang’s son, Cameron Brown. A distinguished neuroscientist, Cameron hires Lydia to complete his mother’s unfinished opus. As she pores over the manuscript in Vogelsang’s riverside studio, Lydia realizes that the necessary detective work isn’t just scholarly. Strange flickers of light appear on the walls at all hours. Vogelsang’s cat, Pepys, is ritually murdered. It’s increasingly clear that someone doesn’t want Lydia to finish her work, as she ventures down the ‘ghostwalk’ to the 17th century. Meanwhile, she resumes her passionate affair with the dashing and inconveniently married Cameron.

The trap-door plot of Ghostwalk involves an occult connection (‘not a simple causal relationship’, Lydia muses, ‘but something as delicate as a web, one of those fine white skeins you see around the tips of grass stems in the spring when the dew is heavy’) between Elizabeth Vogelsang’s untimely demise and the violent deaths of five men during the period when Newton was establishing his reputation at Trinity. A kindred skein connects the alchemical cabal of the 17th century with outbreaks of violence in post-9/11 Cambridge, ‘a city of keys and locked doors and private secret inner courtyards’. Animal-rights activists lurk in the shadows, along with whatever is brewing in the top-secret neuroscience labs where Cameron experiments on rats and sends secret text-messages to his lover.

Two kinds of implausibility threaten thrillers like Ghostwalk. One is bogus erudition; the other is rickety romance. Some readers of The Da Vinci Code could never suspend their disbelief beyond a Harvard professor of ‘religious symbology’. Rebecca Stott, whose previous books include a vivid biographical study of Charles Darwin called Darwin and the Barnacle, is perfectly at home in academic scholarship, and her 17th-century characters and settings are solidly grounded in fact. The pages she includes in Ghostwalk from Elizabeth Vogelsang’s fictional manuscript on Newton, replete with footnotes and illustrations, are utterly convincing. The first extract traces the journey of a prism made by master glassmakers in Venice to the young Isaac Newton, ‘who had wandered that morning among the glass sellers of Cheapside asking for information about glassmaking and lens grinding’. Armed with his prism, Newton split ‘the rainbow-freighted ray’ of light into its constituent colours, and ‘coined the word spectrum, or ghost, to describe the lozenge shape that glowed on his wall’.

Stott persuasively conveys the uncanny world of waking dream in which intellectual discoveries are sometimes made. Holed up in her riverside studio, Lydia stumbles upon an extraordinary resemblance between Newton’s drawing of his own eyeball being prodded by a needle (his excruciating way of testing how vision and pressure are intertwined) and an early map of Cambridge with an oval island in the River Cam. ‘Turning the map so that the oval lay to the left of the city … the map of Cambridge, ringed by water, suddenly seemed to me a reversed image of Newton’s drawing of his own eyeball’. This visual rhyme, ‘one image echoing the other’, is so extraordinary that one wonders whether Stott has made a real contribution to Newton scholarship. Her evocation of Newton’s ‘plague-stricken’ Cambridge is indelible: ‘For a man sleepless, half-starved, and with his eyes burned and exhausted from experiment … the city must have seemed like a vision from Revelations’.

The clandestine romance between Lydia Brooke and Cameron Brown — bookish names that seem culled from some forgotten Victorian novel — flits among text messages and other peripherals of our digital age. Much of the narrative is in Lydia’s voice and archly addressed to Brown, the scientist in the 21st century whose unsavory career is meant to echo Newton’s. Compared with the solidity of Vogelsang’s pages about Cambridge during the plague years, these passionate exchanges in the present can seem a bit weightless and cloying: ‘“No, I won’t kiss you”, I said, and kissed you. “No, and a hundred times, no”. Yet Lydia, a bohemian on the fringes of academia, is a poignantly recognizable type — a perfect foil for Brown, the clever and distracted professional man on the make.

In his story ‘Death and the Compass’, Borges gussied up a tawdry tale of revenge with, as he put it, ‘a dead rabbi, a compass, an 18th-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger and the diamond-shaped patterns on a paint-store wall’. Rebecca Stott, with her own spectral patterns on the wall, has accomplished something distinctively fresh with what she calls ‘a grubby little set of murders in Cambridge’.”Along the way, she manages to invoke both the non-causal entanglements of quantum physics and the paranoid conspiracies of Pynchon and DeLillo. Her home terrain, however, is the river-riven landscape of the human heart.

Christopher Benfey, the Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, writes about art for Slate.