This is a strange and intriguing book, part detective mystery, part love story, part ghost story. It is set in Cambridge from 2003 onwards and is only obliquely an historical novel.
The woman whose sudden death opens the book has left behind an unfinished manuscript of a life of Isaac Newton the alchemist (Newton devoted much more of his life to alchemy than to physics, although most of his alchemy was practised in secret). Lydia, the heroine of the book, is hired by the dead biographer’s son, who is also Lydia’s ex-lover, to ghost-write the remaining chapters. As she works she unravels a skein of sinister mysteries about Newton, about his biographer, and about her employer/lover.
None of these mysteries is fully resolved, leaving the reader with a choice of explanations. I was relieved that Newton was cleared of being a serial murderer, as seemed likely at one point, since my wife is a descendant of Newton’s mother. Indeed my only criticism of the book is that it presumes that the reader is familiar with Newton’s complicated family structure; not all of us know that Hannah Smith was Newton’s mother.
The press release describes the book as ‘beautifully written’, meaning that is very slow, with long lyrical descriptions of Cambridge in autumn. I found it deliciously slow, gradually ratcheting up the tension to the final violent denouement.