Map of Blue Book Balloon

24 October 2019

Review - Ghoster by Jason Arnopp

Cover design by Ellen Rockell
Jason Arnopp
Orbit Books, 24 October 2019
PB, e, 449pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of Ghoster to consider for review.

It's an often heard complaint that literature hasn't been able to engage with modern communications technology, and that even when a book is set in the present day, you often might as well be from the 1980s, as far as email, mobile phones and social media are concerned.

That may be a little overstated - I think that after, perhaps, a slow start, these things now appear fairly regularly - but authors still seem to struggle with what they mean, how they affect lives. In Ghoster, Arnopp has tackled that head on. Not only do we see text conversations between Kate and best friend Izzy (and that friendship between the two women is at the centre of this book), but the plot hangs on the dangerously addictive potential of such tech and its effect on lives.

We learn at the start that Kate is undergoing a digital detox, that she's smashed her smartphone and walked away from her "socials". It's a little while before we understand what led to this - but anyone with a heart would, I think, then shake their head at what happened. And then think, "There but for the grace of God..."

Kate is an absorbing, frustrating, sympathetic character, nothing unusual in her addiction to that next like, the buzz of the phone reporting a mention, to a swipe on a dating app. She's all of us really - but beyond that Arnopp has an eye for character and quickly brings alive Kate and her quest for confidence (and for a man). She suffers from a degree of awkwardness and is continually self-deprecating (there is some background with a mother who is distant) but seems, at last, to have connected with someone, Scott, who is right for her. There's also that friendship with Izzy, a job (paramedic) at which she excels so things are looking up.

And then it all goes wrong. Scott vanishes just as Kate takes that risky step and moves in with him. The only clue is his cracked phone, left in an empty flat. The phone is full of all those dopamine-squeezing apps that Kate has sworn off. She shouldn't touch, it shouldn't snoop. But this is different, isn't? She needs too get on that phone. Scott may be in trouble...

I loved the way that Arnopp makes smartphone culture central to this novel. It's not only a tool, a means to an end, it's the central fact of Kate's life, the only way she has of - potentially - connecting back with Scott.  And it's the medium by which she learns all about him, how he isn't the man she thought. It's her salvation and her damnation. The story darts backwards and forwards, following the burgeoning relationship between the two, visiting earlier scenes recalled in the later, harder few days that Kate spends hunting Scott down. Those memories haunt Kate as her personal and professional lives balloon out of control with consequences for everyone around her. That, too, is well done: the compromises, the little excuses, the justification, one bad choice leading to another worse one, the swearing that she'll never do that thing again... and all accompanied by an internal chorus of horror and dread - as well as a compulsion to keep looking at that phone.

While there's a real sense of supernatural horror here - whispering voices on the phone, some frightening stuff in the dark - the underlying, creeping dread comes from other places: from hidden lives, obsessions, unearthed secrets, lies. And the whole thing plays out to a background of an unconcerned, hedonistic, partying Brighton, the contrast adding bite to the horror.

The only thing that undercut that sense was the delivery of information in several chunks towards the end of the book, which felt less effective than the slow teasing out in the earlier part. But it was still a book I binged, one I had to keep reading.

Flicking those pages.

Getting another little hit with each chapter end.

Ignoring the family and pets around me and being a little bit cross when I had to put it down and do something else.

Now, what does that remind me of...?

For more about Ghoster, including links to buy the book, see the Orbit website here.

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