Ghost Fire by Wilbur Smith

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

To my constant love, my soulmate, my playmate, MOKHINISO, Spirits of Genghis Khan and Omar Khayyam reincarnated in a moon as lucent as a perfect pearl.

This statement introduces Wilbur Smith’s book Ghost Fire. I’m sure that it is intended as a public statement of love for his fourth wife. While no rational mind would doubt the sentiment, the statement is appropriate for the couple concerned, and does not belong in a public space. For most readers, I would venture that it is ‘over the top.’

Writing with Tom Harper as co-author under terms of an agreement with HarperCollins, Wilbur Smith has published Ghost Fire, another of his action-filled adventure stories, this time featuring Theo and Connie, brother and sister of the Courtney clan. Opening the story as children, Connie reveals the leadership qualities and an already awakened interest in novelty that will characterise much of her subsequent life. Theo is a less imaginative child but is eager to wrest the leadership from his sister once she has determined what is to be done. Theo comes across as blinkered by convention, as his protests over Connie’s gazing on the naked body of a woman (4) shows. He turns out to be much more gallant than he at first appears. Theo is the one who is punished for the opening escapade, punishment that he receives like a man. Meanwhile, his sister relies on deceit (5), a quality she exhibits for much of the story.

As with many of his previous books, this is meant to be a tale of men in action, men being warriors for the cause of good, or men doing despicable things and being held to account for it. As it happens, it is a tale of derring-do: there is much action, the cause for right is that of the English, the bad guys are the Indians around Madras and Calcutta, who are allied with the French, and as the story develops, the main enemy becomes the French together with an Indian tribe in North America. (I could call it a tale of Cowboys and Indians – the former betray themselves through gormless decision-making, while the latter, knowing nothing of fairness, don’t stay dead – or so it seems).

One should not take mockery too far. It is true that, for all his books, Smith has always gone the extra yard to ensure that any material that finds its way into his books is authentic. He, and the team that work with him, are consummate researchers.

Smith’s audience will love this book. It requires one to just accept the events as they unfold. It is like most of Smith’s stories, event driven. This is a useful technique as it frees the writer to walk away and begin something new whenever the mood moves him. By such means he does not need to wonder what there is that motivates his characters, nor does he have to worry overly much about the consequences of particular actions. No development, no in-depth analysis, just a quick appraisal that his story could have happened at a particular time. {There was a war in North America in 1759 and it was fought between the English and the allied forces of France and several of the Indian tribes. Smith has placed map of Fort Royal at the front of the book to add authenticity. There does appear to be a cartographer named Sally Taylor who holds the copyright over the map of Fort Royal, and may therefore be the same woman who drew the map}.

Where this book differs from Smith’s other run of the mill stories is the promiscuous behaviour of Connie, the female lead. Becoming a tenant in Gerard Courtney’s home following the death of her parents, she becomes his lover. This leads to an estrangement with Theo. Soon after an Indian uprising she notices that Theo appears to have become panic-stricken and deserted. She is quick to condemn. Rejected by the Nawab because she has boils on her back she quickly snags Captain Lascaux until he is unmasked as a bigamist.  In due course it is the turn of Couviers and Corbeil, both rotters and both French. Corbeil has a large part to play, and handles the job impeccably, as each time there is a possibility of his being done in, some event happens that saves his life. It is the combination of Theo and sister Connie that decides his future.  Connie, however, has already decided on the next step in her life.   

A review of this book would not be complete without a word or two about the characters that appear throughout the book.  Theo’s and Connie’s parents occupy an early part, Theo meets Nathan and forms a firm friendship that is shattered when Nathan dies charging Theo to deliver a diamond to his sister in Bethel. Theo does so after much hardship. Wilbur Smith’s treatment of the citizens of Bethel tempts one into believing he has never had any contact with, and knows next to nothing about, the Amish communities on which the men and women who live in Bethel are modelled. The scene by the lake where Abigail Claypole, the virgin sister of Nathan, pleads, “For one night in my life, let me call my body my own” (15) and then proceeds to have sex with Theo not once but twice with a skill she did not learn at her mother’s knee, would be very touching, if it were not so ludicrous.    Theo’s interactions with the Abenaki people are over the top but at least believable. Moses plays a faithful friend and is as authentic as any other novelist’s depiction of wild Indians. [I would say I have reservations about Red Indians but that would make me as guilty as Wilbur Smith’s commenting on Percy the Lion’s lack of pride]. 

To sum up, this book is a cracker if you want nothing more than an event driven, brain in neutral, action story peopled by characters whose super-human activities are never likely to clash with reality.  For others, who want more from their reading, shame on you! You’re on the wrong side of the bookstore.   

Ghost Fire

(2019)

By Wilbur Smith

Allen & Unwin/Zaffre

ISBN: 978-1-78576-942-9

416pp; $39.99                                                                                                                

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