Ellie McKnight is a bright academic working at Belfast University. When she falls for a minor diplomat, Ellie throws caution to the wind, jettisons her career and follows him to a posting at the British Consulate in Istanbul. And so begins her extraordinary journey in Margaret Whittock’s ingenious and atmospheric novel, Ghost of Gallipoli. Ellie is quickly chucked into the rarified world of the diplomatic corps and it’s a loose fit. Ensconced in the grand imperial pile that was the old British embassy during the days of the Sultans, she crashes into the pomposity of middle England and we are treated to a legion of midget-minded expatriates (sends a shiver down my spine and dark memories flooding back) – a ‘tight-knit group of wives into jam and chutney making’ led by head bitch, Alice Melefont.
But all is not as it seems.
Events take a spooky twist when Ellie encounters the restless soul of her great uncle Jack – an eighteen year old Private from Ulster, cannon fodder for the Gallipoli debacle of the Great War. To find some peace, Jack’s spirit is resolved to exact revenge on the descendants of those responsible for his premature demise (‘I went to war, never fired a single shot, never killed anyone, why should I have to suffer like this?’) and he needs Ellie’s earthly help. Once Ellie recovers from the disbelief and shock, the determined duo launch a dastardly partnership.
Margaret gives us a warts and all account of 1990’s Istanbul, avoiding overwrought romanticism (‘a blanket of smog often hung over the city, a poisonous mixture of lignite and car exhaust fumes’) but we never doubt the city’s power to beguile as we see Ellie ‘transfixed by the brutal beauty of the place’. With some chilling flashbacks to the Gallipoli carnage and a tantalising climax delayed until the very last pages, Ghost of Gallipoli fires on all cylinders.
Margaret was inspired to write her novel after discovering the headstone of her great uncle in a Gallipoli war cemetery. The novel is a taut and atmospheric thriller, a cleverly plotted, well-paced drama, peppered with twists and turns. It is, as they say, a ripping yarn.