Ghosting: A Memoir by Jennie Erdal
From the opening pages of Ghosting, it's easy to believe that Jennie Erdal has worked as a translator. Introducing the book's central character, her prose is elegant and precise, and her words well-weighed: "this is the jungle bird in human form - flamboyant, exaggerated, ornate - a creature whose baroque splendour surely has to be part of the male mating display. And yet the brightness of the eyes and the set of the smile give him an amused look that suggests a degree of self-parody." And so begins Erdal's description of Tiger, the man for whom she 'ghosted' for nearly twenty years, writing on his behalf newspaper columns, non-fiction books, two novels and even love letters.
Erdal - publishing under her own name for the first time - moved between family life in St Andrews and the excesses of literati London. During the two decades she worked for Tiger, under the official title of 'commissioning editor', she led almost a dual existence: a working mother in Scotland and a valued confidante in Tiger's extravagantly run publishing house. The contrast between the two worlds is sharply and often comically portrayed. There are fascinating glimpses: a mysterious husband, the mother with a secret sexual life, and the dippy darlings that people Tiger's palatial office. Yet however sharply these fragments are depicted, Erdal manages to leave the reader at a fair old arm's length. Marriage proposals, births and deaths are slipped out in brief sentences.
The magnificent Tiger is easily identifiable as Naim Attallah - unless you were to confuse him with one of London's other wealthy Arabic publishers who has written a book on famous women, keeps a tiger skin on the office wall and wears three watches. His is a generous characterisation - though she points out his fretting, his impetuous decision-making, and at times his downright daftness, she is quick to note his generosity, charisma, kindness and boyish enthusiasm. Even so, rumours of a rift have begun to circulate. In contrast Erdal, as if through habit, remains a shady character. While concentrating almost exclusively on the ghost-writing process and Tiger's ample personality, she addresses many key questions only half-heartedly, as if second-guessing someone else's motivations rather than explaining her own point of view. Why did she write under another's name for so long? How does she justify spilling the beans on a man who paid her for her discretion? Would she like to have the novels republished under her own name?
Whilst it's hard to imagine the book world taking such an interest in the workings of a profession other than, well, the book world, this is not niche reading. Erdal draws the reader into her curious and bewildering world with thoughtfulness, grace and good humour.