Friday, November 28, 2008

Alchemy and History

What are the odds? Dorothea's last blog was about a book called The Alchemist and my blog also deals with alchemy. And I admit it – I know practically nothing about alchemy. Changing lead into gold, the philosopher's stone - that's the extent of my knowledge. So I was intrigued by the premise of Rebecca Stott's mystery novel Ghostwalk. A Cambridge historian named Elizabeth Vogelsang dies mysteriously just as she is completing a book about Sir Isaac Newton's involvement with alchemy at Trinity College, Cambridge in the seventeenth century. This involvement is historically accurate. Although many biographers minimize this aspect of Newton's career, he wrote extensively on the subject. Vogelsang's son Cameron, a successful research scientist, persuades Lydia Brooke, a freelance writer and his former lover, to complete his mother's work.

Lydia soon realizes that the unfinished book explored the possibility that Newton was involved in a series of five murders at Cambridge. At the same time she becomes aware of a series of ritual murders of animals attibuted to a radical animal rights group opposed to animal experimentation. She rekindles her affair with Cameron, but becomes increasingly disturbed as unexplainable phenomena begin to occur in Elizabeth's riverside studio where she is working. Is there a connection between the seventeenth century murders and the current violence?

And here's where it all breaks down for me. I've written before about my unwillingness to suspend disbelief unless there's a very good reason. To truly enjoy and become engrossed in this book, you need to accept the possibility that spirits from the seventeenth century are communicating with the present, perhaps even influencing events. I kept hoping that at the end it would turn out that the strange visions could be explained by a carbon monoxide leak in the studio or an hallucinogen slipped into Lydia's tea. No such luck. I know, I's fiction. It's just a question of personal taste.

Stott does a terrific job explaining the influence of alchemy on seventeenth century scientists, and her description of Cambridge, both in Newton's time and today, are vivid. She weaves together the romance of Lydia with the inconveniently married Cameron and the mysterious murders of both the past and the present. It's an entertaining read, but I'd recommend only to those who are prepared to believe in ghosts.

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