Martin Evans talks to the historian of science Rebecca Stott about her new novel in which she explores unexplained events in the life of Isaac Newton, and considers the interactions between past and present.
Ghostwalk, Rebecca Stott’s first novel, begins in dramatic fashion with the death of a Cambridge historian, Elizabeth Vogelsang, in 2003. She is found floating in the river at the bottom of her garden, a prism clutched in her hand. In her study is an unfinished manuscript about Isaac Newton’s involvement in the pan-European networks of seventeenth-century alchemists.
Desperate to complete his mother’s book Cameron Brown asks Lydia Brooke to ghost write the remaining chapters; a request replete with meaning since the couple have had an intermittent love affair over the past decade and a half. To finish the research Lydia moves from Brighton to Elizabeth’s house, an eerily shaped studio which looks down on the Cam, but as she pieces together the Newton material Cambridge is struck by a wave of attacks by animal rights extremists who target Cameron, a leading neuroscientist, because he uses animal experimentation. Soon, confronted with puzzling coincidences and ghostly figures, Lydia realizes that the secrets Elizabeth discovered might explain the present-day violence as the seventeenth century bleeds, quite literally, in the twenty-first. In this way Lydia is caught up not only with her renewed love affair with Cameron, but also a 400-year-old murder mystery where the great Isaac Newton himself is a chief suspect.
Part history book, part detective novel, part super-natural thriller, part love story, Ghostwalk is a daring mixture of genres and styles based around real figures and real events. Yet, by weaving them together into a work of speculative fiction Rebecca Stott has posed questions about Newton’s life that a conventional historical biography could not.