Summary and book reviews of Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott


By Rebecca Stott

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  • Hardcover: May 2007,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2008,
    368 pages.

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Book Summary

A Cambridge historian, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found drowned, clutching a glass prism in her hand. The book she was writing about Isaac Newton’s involvement with alchemy—the culmination of her lifelong obsession with the seventeenth century—remains unfinished. When her son, Cameron, asks his former lover, Lydia Brooke, to ghostwrite the missing final chapters of his mother’s book, Lydia agrees and moves into Elizabeth’s house—a studio in an orchard where the light moves restlessly across the walls. Soon Lydia discovers that the shadow of violence that has fallen across present-day Cambridge, which escalates to a series of murders, may have its origins in the troubling evidence that Elizabeth’s research has unearthed. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a dangerous conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.

Filled with evocative descriptions of Cambridge, past and present, of seventeenth-century glassmaking, alchemy, the Great Plague, and Newton’s scientific innovations, Ghostwalk centers around a real historical mystery that Rebecca Stott has uncovered involving Newton’s alchemy. In it, time and relationships are entangled—the present with the seventeenth century, and figures from the past with the love-torn twenty-first century woman who is trying to discover their secrets. A stunningly original display of scholarship and imagination, and a gripping story of desire and obsession, Ghostwalk is a rare debut that will change the way most of us think about scientific innovation, the force of history, and time itself.


Over the last two years, as I have tried to tease out the truths from the untruths in that series of events that seeped out through Elizabeth's death, like lava moving upwards and outwards through salt water from a tear in the seabed, I have had to be you several times, Cameron Brown, in order to claw myself towards some kind of coherence. Sometimes it was—is—easy to imagine the world through your eyes, terribly possible to imagine walking through the garden that afternoon in those moments before you found your mother's body in the river. After all, for a long time, all that time we were lovers, it was difficult to tell where your skin ended and mine began. That was part of the trouble for Lydia Brooke and Cameron Brown. Lack of distance became—imperceptibly—a violent entanglement.

So this is for you, Cameron, and yes, it is also for me, Lydia Brooke, because perhaps, in putting all these pieces together properly, I will be able to step...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Before her death, Elizabeth tells Lydia, "Cambridge is just a palimpsest"–a word meaning a parchment that has been written on, scraped off, and used again. What does she mean by this? How does that metaphor figure in the construction of the novel? Could the metaphor of the palimpsest represent anything else in the novel other than the city?
  2. At Elizabeth’s memorial service, Cameron reads lines from the Wallace Stevens poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird":
    When the blackbird flew out of sight / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles.
    How are these lines relevant to Elizabeth’s death? What edges of circles, or intersecting lives and stories, does Elizabeth now ...
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Media Reviews
New Yorker

Stott, a historian of science, deploys her research effortlessly and demonstrates great attention to detail, but the proliferation of themes means that none are explored in much depth.

New York Times Book Review

Mesmerizing . . . Ghostwalk has an all-too-rare scholarly authority and imaginative sparkle. . . . . Rebecca Stott 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.

Los Angeles Times - Janice P. Nimura

Fiercely intelligent… 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.

New York Daily News

Ghostwalk is a strange and improbable book that seduces you into the unbelievable….Rebecca Stott’s debut thriller weaves science and the supernatural into an eerie narrative. . . . a truly haunting literary thriller.

Washington Post Book World

A hypnotic brew of speculation, intrigue and murder…It’s outlandish and devilishly plausible….You’ll be enthralled… By the final chapter, Stott’s elegant subtlety has been transmuted into a violent swirl of reversals and revelations that would defy Newton’s calculus. You can’t help but feel swept away.

Good Housekeeping

[A] posh romantic thriller. If you liked cracking the Da Vinci Code, you’ll love uncovering a secret 17th-century brotherhood that includes the young Isaac Newton.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Stott makes a stunning debut with this hypnotic and intelligent thriller. . . 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.


Mesmerizing, intellectually challenging . . . Stott jumps dexterously between present and past, bringing the world of Newton and his alchemical colleagues to vivid life and offering tantalizingly believable explanations for the cojoining of time and space. No novel since Iain Pears’s Instance of the Fingerpost (1998) has so vigorously stirred the cauldron of conflict that was seventeenth-century England.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Spellbinding . . . Stott’s compelling style acts as a counterpoint to the scientific and historical components of this haunting literary mystery thriller. Stott skillfully binds fact with fiction in an insightful story that surprises and intrigues.

Reader Reviews

Good, but not great.
The author started with an obvious passion for the 17th century, and her extensive research into the period is evident. There are parts of this novel that seem like they could have been the kernel of the author’s Ph.D. thesis. She layers a rather ...   Read More

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