Heather's Reviews > The Anatomy of Ghosts

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor
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Apr 29, 11


John Holdsworth is having a tough time making ends meet. Living in 1780’s London, Holdsworth was once able to provide for his family through the ownership of a modest bookstore, supplementing that income from the authorship of a book called The Anatomy of Ghosts. But recently things have turned sour for Holdsworth, as both his wife and young son have drowned within weeks of each other, and his property has been taken from him. Just when he thinks all is lost, he’s granted an audience with Lady Anne Oldershaw, one of the most prominent members of society. When Holdsworth meets Lady Anne, she initially asks him to help her decide what to to with the library her husband left behind, but that’s not really all she wants. It turns out that Lady Anne’s young son Frank, once a student at Jerusalem College, has recently gone mad and is now housed in a private sanitarium. Lady Anne wants Holdsworth to get to the bottom of Frank’s apparent mental instability by secretly infiltrating the college under the guise of investigating the library. But when Holdsworth begins his covert operation, he discovers a new and bizarre world of 18th century academia, where the social classes are sharply divided and where devious secret societies have unnatural power. Uncovering what made Frank go mad that spring evening soon becomes a dangerous occupation, not only for Holdsworth but for all those associated with him at the college as well. In addition to all the shady business going on at the college, there is more than one instance of a ghost appearing, making Holdsworth the perfect choice for this difficult assignment. But what is really going on behind all these locked doors, and is Holdsworth really prepared for all he will find? In this gripping and intense historical mystery, Taylor takes us on a tour of 18th century London academia, grime and seediness notwithstanding.

Though this was a rather long book, I found myself quickly absorbed with the story and aching to discover just what was going on in this strange and twisted tale. Like the best offerings of historical fiction, this book elucidated on a subject and place that many may not know a lot about. Taylor kept things very interesting by throwing in various plot twists and intrigues throughout the narrative, which really kept me on my toes. I was surprised by a lot of things and found that the more attention I gave to it, the deeper I was caught in this peculiar and involving tale.

One of the things I found fascinating about this book was also something I took a little bit of exception to. The role that women played seemed at times faintly misogynistic, and I was unsure if this was an attempt to be true to the time and place or if it came as a reflection he author’s attitudes. The women ran the gamut from genteel and respectable to loose and sexually wayward, but whatever their circumstances were, it felt like they got very little respect in the text. I reiterate in saying that I’m almost certain that Taylor does this in attempt to faithfully recreate the world of 18th century London, but for a modern female reader, there was a lot that made me uncomfortable about it. The women portrayed here were mostly treated with disrespect or mollified, and even the secondary heroine was left to stew with her thoughts for most of the book instead of being placed in the central narrative. This was ostensibly a man’s book, being that it dealt intimately with men and men’s concerns, and I being that it was set in a men’s college, I could see the importance of writing it this way, though it did rebuff me at times.

One of the things that I liked best was the way the story was so expertly involved and that Taylor was so adept at managing several plot points convincingly. There were may characters here and at times it was difficult to keep them all straight, but, luckily, there is a character index right at the beginning of the book where it’s bound to be seen. This story had elements of suspense right alongside the history which I think is one of the things that made it so successful for me. I really got the feeling that I was peeking into a world long past in addition to being entertained and mystified by the secrets that were going on at the college, and found myself reading speedily to discover how all of the intrigue would boil down. I think it was particularly clever for Taylor to highlight the differences between the wealthy students and teachers and the ones who were there by scholarship and graft because it enabled the reader to get an idea of the class differences in that society. I have to say that I’m rather fond of reading about how the underprivileged got along during those times, and was very interested in reading about their economies and their ability to rise among the ranks through sheer effort alone.

I also really liked Holdsworth and felt that he was the perfect character to star in this story. I found him to be rather intelligent, and his intellectual deductions seemed very organic and believable. I also liked that his attitude was always above reproach and that he was so polite. I began to see that his job would have been all that much harder if he didn’t maintain a veneer of respectability, and in more than one instance, his habit of holding his tongue served him well in creating a confidante instead of an enemy. Holdsworh was universally liked and trusted, and this reader felt the same emotions for him. Because of Taylor’s ability to write a character who was so agreeable yet so inquisitive, the narrative took on a lot of shape and piquancy. Leaving the rascals to be rascals, Holdsworth maneuvered around them deftly and with good regard, which caused the other more malign characters to let their guards down around him. I’m not embarrassed to say that Holdsworth was my favorite aspect of the book and that he was a great character with which to share an adventure.

Though this book was puzzling in its regards to women, overall I found it to be very absorbing and gratifying. The conclusion leaves some ends to be tied up, which I also liked, and I’ve been wondering if this is the first book in a proposed series. If it is, I’m thinking I’ll continue on with it because it’s the type of book that’s not only readable, but that focuses on a character whom I found delightful and fresh. Those lovers of historical fantasy wit a little meat on its bones would probably love this book, and despite its length, it’s easy to fly through the pages and be utterly compelled by the story it has to tell.
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