The Ghosts of London – Amy Cross

The Ghosts of London

Date: June 1, 2014

Source: Amazon; can be found on the US and UK sites.

Format: E-book

Pages: 299 pages

Synopsis: Two sisters, lost in one of the world’s busiest and most dangerous cities…

After running away from home, Katie arrives in London and immediately tries to find her sister Rachel. Unfortunately, she soon finds herself in trouble, and a stranger’s helping hand might just make things worse.

Meanwhile, her sister Rachel keeps dying over and over again, while a mysterious man named Robinson tries to work out why the River Thames has suddenly been drained of all its water.  (Source: Amazon product description).

Short Version: Moody and evocative, but the plotting and structure are more than a little patchy.

Long Version:

Look at that gorgeous cover. LOOK AT IT. I want to marry that book cover. I’d pay money just for the cover.

Ahem.

I get a little excited about a good book cover.

I’ve never heard of this writer before, but the title, cover and premise of her novel all drew me in and I had to have a look. I’m glad I did, though I didn’t feel it was the best this book could be at all times.

The main thing that sticks out for me – this is beautifully evocative. Despite only having been once, I make no bones about my ongoing love-affair with London, one that’s been going on as far back as I can remember. I connected with Cross’s careful, loving prose about the city, particularly the main artery of the River Thames. The Thames becomes a character that the reader cares about, and the description of her being abused at the hands of a company building an unnecessary dam has genuine pathos. At one point, surveying the drained river, one character reflects that London now looks as if her heart had been ripped out.

There are plenty of great turns of phrase like this – I’m particularly caught up in this description of a man who believes he has committed a murder:

As he reaches his front door, he pauses and looks over his shoulder, as if he expects something to be behind him.

The police?

A ghost?

A chorus of angels, pointing at him and screaming?

I’m impressed by Cross’s use of dialogue, not only to move the story along but to show character. Each of her characters has a distinct voice of their own, extending to things like one character punctuating almost every sentence with variations on “fuck” and another who seems to have no idea what “blatantly” means, but likes the sound of it.

The setting seems bleak to the point of being dystopian. When Katie first arrives in London she encounters a cold, uncaring sea of faces, most of whom outright ignore her pleas for help. (While this explains how she ends up in the dodgiest digs in London, it certainly wasn’t my own experience of London, where strangers went out of their way to help me if I started to look lost.) The characters seem to accept “terrorism” as a daily part of urban life, too; even random explosions are shrugged off as “terrorists” and largely ignored at first.

Cross’s intertwining plots (particularly the scenario of what you would find at the bottom of the Thames if it were drained) are strong enough that her prose serves the plot, and not the other way around. Her writing becomes almost invisible in places – in a good way – except for a section of the middle part of the book which, from its punctuation errors, seems to have been skipped in the editing process or edited by a different person to the rest.

The structure itself struck me as really strange, as if several separate volumes had been smooshed (that’s a word now :p) into the one package. There are several “prologues” in a row (one is pushing it, so far as I’m concerned) and multiple “epilogues”, the first of which happens 25% of the way through the book. The first-person narrative switches between sisters Katie and Rachel with sections baldly headed “Katie” or “Rachel”, some of which are only one or two pages long and which don’t seem to serve any purpose except to interrupt the other narrative. That’s a very subjective thing and not an error on Cross’s part, but it started to frustrate me very quickly.

As mentioned in the short version, the plotting of this is very hit and miss. Without spoiling key plot elements, some of the reveals were well-placed and made me gasp. In many other places, though, I felt like Cross was asking the reader to invest in too many “coincidences” to make her plot work. Katie decides to run away without even taking her mobile phone with her, with no money, no back-up plan and no common sense at all (it amazed me when it’s eventually revealed that Katie is supposed to be twenty-two years old. I once ran away when I was about six, and planned it better than Katie.) Rachel conveniently doesn’t check her emails, for no good reason, just when there is an urgent email waiting for her. A server is mysteriously down when it is desperately needed. In one sequence, another character uses every epithet under the sun instead of saying Rachel’s name – because using it would thwart a plot twist. A major character is killed off in one brief paragraph, as if it’s no big deal and not important to anyone. There are twists and turns galore, but they seem to rely increasingly on sheer dumb (un)luck. Added up, these become infuriating.

They generally tend to land on Katie. Again to service the plot, her characterisation bounces back and forth – she’s doey and wide-eyed, but then manages to kick someone in the face. No explanation as to how she learned this skill is forthcoming. She gains and loses personality traits and skills to service the plot. Rachel’s character is stronger and more consistent and her concern for Katie is touching, but then, she apparently abandoned her sister in an abusive household for years, attempting no contact with her at all. It strikes as a little odd that she abruptly switches gears from “can’t be bothered checking my emails” to “Katie is the centre of my universe.”

Despite these flaws, the book is still worth reading and for a few dollars, it won’t break your bank to do so.

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