Book Review

The Anatomy of Ghosts

This review doesn’t start well, but I promise, it gets better. I received an ARC of Andrew Taylor’s The Anatomy of Ghosts, hot on American bookshelves as I type. I read the first two pages and put it down immediately. It was not because Taylor (or his editor) chose to begin with a prologue (which I’ve realized is the crutch of the modern author). More so, it was because the writing did not pull me in. I was not thrilled, in any way, despite the kudos on the cover, claiming Taylor has mastered “a high degree of literary expertise.” The prologue bored me, and it was days before I gave the book another try—and how disappointing, since the synopsis was so intriguing.

From Taylor’s website: “They say Jerusalem College is haunted by Mrs. Whichcote’s ghost. Frank Oldershaw claims he saw her in the garden, where she drowned. Now he’s under the care of a physician. Desperate to salvage her son’s reputation and restore him to health, Lady Anne Oldershaw employs her own agent—John Holdsworth, author of The Anatomy of Ghosts, a controversial attack on the existence of ghostly phenomena. But his arrival in Cambridge disrupts the uneasy status quo. He glimpses a world of privilege and abuse, where the sinister Holy Ghost Club governs life at Jerusalem more effectively than the Master, Dr. Carbury, ever could.

“But Holdsworth’s powers of reason and his knowledge of natural philosophy have other challenges. He dreams of his dead wife, Maria, who roams the borders of death. Now there’s Elinor, the very-much-alive Master’s wife, to haunt him in life. And at the heart of it all is the mystery of what really happened to Sylvia Whichcote in the claustrophobic confines of Jerusalem. Why was Sylvia found lying dead in the Long Pond just before a February dawn? And how did she die?”

Sounds interesting, right? Well Andrew Taylor’s Anatomy of Ghosts is, in fact, very interesting; it just has a bad beginning. Once I got past the prologue, the first thing that drew me in was the setting: England, 1786. I have trouble picturing this time, off the top of my head, but I didn’t need to create the space in my own imagination; Taylor did it for me. He even includes a Tolkien-esque map for reader reference. More than that, he includes vivid descriptions of not only the college but of the disgusting rabble that surrounds it. So not only is Anatomy of Ghosts a mystery, but it is beautifully conceived historical fiction.

The fictional Jerusalem College is roughly based on Cambridge's Emmanual College, pictured here.
Taylor chooses an unlikely protagonist in the dour John Holdsworth. Holdsworth lost his son to a tragic accident, and his wife—obsessed with their son’s ghost—soon takes her own life, in an effort to join him. Poverty- and grief-stricken, Holdsworth loses the house he shared with his family. He spends his days selling old books in the streets of London. Soon, as mentioned in the synopsis, he is pulled into the Jerusalem College mystery, and this is where his true character development begins. This is also where the real meat of the story begins, as well.

Andrew Taylor does a wonderful job of weaving uncertainty through his pages. Not only are we confused about how Mrs. Whichcote died, we’re unsure of why she died. More than that, we’re unsure of the suspects. In Anatomy of Ghosts, you suspect everyone—a key to a good mystery—and nothing really makes sense until the last thirty pages, which makes you wonder, are ghosts real or imagined? The book in its entirety is an exciting ride, though, from the drunken college boys to the blossoming romance between Holdsworth and the Master’s wife. There’s a thrilling array of people, existing within different social classes, different moral beliefs, and even different levels of sanity. Via his character behaviors, Taylor further brings to light the society and appearance of this far-away country in a far-away time.

So yes, I have my qualms with the prologue. And no, Andrew Taylor is not Carlos Ruiz Zafon. But Taylor does bring a world to life in this clever riddle you will never solve without the help of his characters. If you like mystery, read Anatomy of Ghosts. If you like historical fiction, read Anatomy of Ghosts. If you simply want to be entertained by a well-written escape from modern American life, read Anatomy of Ghosts. You won’t regret it.

Andrew Taylor’s website:

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