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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, 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.
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REBECCA STOTT is professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. She is the author of a biography Darwin and the Barnacle and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio. She lives in Cambridge, England. This is her first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 out from your skin and back into mine.
Alongside Elizabeth’s body floating in red in the river, there are other places where this story needs to start, places I can see now but wouldn't have seen then, other beginnings which were all connected. Another death, one that took place around midnight on the 5th of January, 1665. That night, Richard Greswold, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, had opened a door onto a dark, unlit landing above a staircase in Trinity. A draught caught the flame from the lamp in his hand, twisting and elongating the shadows around him. As a thin stream of blood began to trickle from one, then both of his nostrils, he raised the back of his hand and wiped it across his cheek, smearing the blood into streaks, and fell forward, very slowly, into air, through the palest of moon shadows cast through casement windows. He fell heavily, his body twisting and beating against the steps and walls. The lamp fell too and bounced, making a metallic counterpoint to the thuds of flesh on wood. By morning the blood from the wound on Richard Greswold’s head had run through and across the uneven cracks of the stone flagging on which he died, making a brown map like the waterways across the Fens to the north, the college porter said, prying a key—the key to the garden—from the dead man’s clenched fist. Encrusted blood, as thick as fen mud.
Greswold’s death was bound up with Elizabeth’s. She came to know that before she died, but we didn’t. Two Cambridge deaths, separated by three centuries, but inseparable, shadowing each other. Richard Greswold. Elizabeth Vogelsang.
Elizabeth Vogelsang drowned in September, 2002, the first of three deaths that would become the subject of a police investigation four months later. The police took a ragged testimony from me, which I gave in answer to the questions they asked and which were recorded on tape in a windowless room in the basement of the Parkside Police Station by a Detective Sergeant Cuff on the 16th of January, 2003.
“All the interview rooms are occupied this morning, Dr. Brooke,” he said, struggling to find the right key as I followed him down grey corridors. “So we’ll have to use the central investigation room. I’m afraid it’s not ideal, but it is at least empty this morning. There’s a staff training morning—health and safety. We have about an hour. This is not a formal interview, you understand. We’ll do that later. Just a chat.”
“I don’t know whether what I have to tell you will take an hour,” I said. My nerves were jangled. I wasn’t sleeping. I was still waking in the middle of the night angry with you, and with me, but I had enough self–possession to know that I would have to be careful and alert here at the Parkside Police Station. Very alert. They had arrested Lily Ridler.
“We will have to see you again, Dr. Brooke, without doubt. You will be central to our enquiries.”
That’s how I came to see another version, their version. Well, not quite see, but glimpse. The central investigation room at the Parkside Police Station was filled with filing cabinets and four desks with exaggerated curves sweeping in different directions; over to the right, a magnetic whiteboard ran the length of one entire windowless wall. Cuff pulled up a swivel chair for me on the other side of his desk, carefully clearing away papers and notes into a drawer and locking it. A collection of objects and photographs had been attached to the whiteboard with magnets. Curled around those objects were a series of questions, names, lists, and arrows in coloured marker pens in different hands. I couldn’t see very much from where I was sitting, so when Cuff went to retrieve a file from another room, I slipped the digital camera out of my briefcase and photographed it. A risky act driven by nothing but a terrible, bereaved curiosity.
A white magnetic board written on in different hands in different colours and a series of photographs—three dead bodies, one woman drowned in a red coat, two men with their faces slashed, a wall of graffiti, several photographs of mutilated cats and horses, the house at Landing Lane, a photograph of Lily Ridler next to some other people I didn't recognise—animal activists, I assume—and a photograph of a pile of shredded paper. When I call up the photo on my laptop and increase the resolution I can pick out details. If you go close enough you can just see that the blue pen lists two of the murder scenes: Staircase E of Trinity College and St. Edward’s Passage. And if you go very close, right up into the right–hand corner—it took me a while to spot this—there’s a photograph of me next to a photograph of Sarah. It was the photograph of me that you carried in your mobile phone, filed away carefully, so that no one would find it. The one you took on Holkham Beach. They must have gone through all the files in your mobile to find that. Underneath someone had written my name. Lydia Brooke.
Yes, that whiteboard was the sketchy beginning of the police version of what came to be known as the Cambridge murders. Murders that would be discussed in Parliament and produced as evidence to support proposed draconian measures in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, and which were finally instrumental in changing British law. Yes, we were making legal history but, of course, we didn't know that then.
That first conversation did take the best part of an hour because Cuff had so many questions about my relationship with you, what I had been doing in Elizabeth’s house, how I had come to know the family, when I had last seen you, what we had talked about, what you had been wearing, and the context for that message I left on your phone. Cuff, who affected a relaxed nonchalance composed, I guessed, to make me drop my guard, summarised my answers and wrote them all out on lined police paper before reading them back to me in a continuous story, which he had somehow made from my fragmented answers. I signed it as a “true account.”
A few months later I tried to put together a more coherent description for the lawyer representing Lily Ridler in the court case. She asked me to write down everything I remembered that might have been relevant to the case, from Elizabeth’s funeral to the days of the trial. I had no ambivalence then about its truth or about its beginning and ending. That came later. I typed it out in Kit’s study looking down over the summer garden, two hours a day, until it seemed about right. Although it read sequentially, I didn’t write it sequentially. Memory doesn’t work like that. I kept remembering things as I wrote, things I had thought until then were inconsequential, which might have been “relevant,” so I went back and tucked them into the story—little details, thoughts, surmisings, speculations.
I’ve always wondered how the two stories—the ragged one I put together in answer to Cuff’s questions and the one I wrote in Kit’s study for Patricia Dibb—ended up being so different. It wasn’t as if I falsified anything. For the police my story was only part of a much bigger narrative, made up of perhaps twenty witness accounts, so the prosecution knitted together all those reports and circumstantial evidence in chronological order, and bit by bit against and between them, my story got pulled in several directions. When set together with all those others, my story took on a different shape, and it was the composite version, filtered, dragged, and kneaded, that the jury agreed to. It was pretty damning once they'd finished with it, damning enough to convict Lily Ridler of murder and send her to prison for the rest of her life. A tight story, she said to me the last time I saw her. Impenetrable now. A closed case.
The story kept on changing. When the court issued a press statement and the newspapers distilled it back down to the size they wanted, with all the appropriately dramatic, suspenseful moments, it fitted neatly into columns of small type. One journalist even made a time line of events in which the two murders were simply a notch in the straight passing of time through Lily’s life, like a single–track train with stations that began with her birth and ended with her arrest. She was charged with three murders and sixteen acts of unlawful animal killing and mutilation, but because they couldn’t pin Elizabeth’s death on her, she was convicted of only two murders. Once they’d added those killings to the time line and filled in the details about her grandfather and her parents, Lily Ridler had become a psychopath, a monster. Now, nearly two years later, Lily is dead.
So if we thought it was finished, we know it isn’t now. The ghosts have not been laid to rest after all, you see, not yours and not hers. If they were to question me again I think I wo...
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