A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell
In the late 1800s, Lenz Alter was a chemist who succeeded in discovering the compound to make fertilizer, winning him a Nobel Prize. After that discovery, the thing that started out to feed the world, morphed into the deadly chemical weapons of two world wars – chlorine gas and Zyclon. The shadow of this tormented the Alter family, filling its tree with three generations of suicides. In 1999, the fourth generation of Alters, Lady, Vee and Delph are three sisters and his last descendants. For the sins of their fathers, they have decided to kill themselves. Before they do, they want the world to know why. This is their story, as well as their collective suicide note.
Many readers will notice that Lenz Alter’s family story is extremely similar to that of the real-life Fritz Haber, whose first wife committed suicide, out of either shame or in protest for the death and destruction that his humanitarian invention had become. Mitchell uses this as her starting point and invents three great-granddaughters who are still living under this cloud.
The question is how three sisters are able to collectively write just one suicide note.The answer I want to give here is “very carefully, apparently” (as in, the same as the joke about how porcupines make love). While this sounds glib in light of the grave subject matter, in truth, it mirrors this novel’s tone perfectly. In fact, this story is about as vivacious as a book about suicide could ever be and a major element that makes this novel wholly beguiling. With the three sisters getting ready to off themselves, writing a note is the exact opposite of how their many familial role models ended their lives. Therefore, their goal is to tell this story so the world will finally get an explanation.
Think, for a moment, about the various sense of that word “finally” here. If you do, you’ll also realize that it is an important indication about the nature of this book, because Mitchell counterbalances the hopelessness with humor. This allows her to avoid these women to sound self-pitying. Case in point is Mitchell’s liberal distribution of puns within the storytelling. The sisters tell us early on that their father loved languages, and especially enjoyed playing with words, particularly in English. These joking statements and the many cutting remarks and sharp insights easily have become ludicrous. Thankfully, Mitchell uses them in artfully so they show up when least expected, and exactly when the narrative feels like it might turn dark and gloomy. Additionally, Mitchell juxtaposes this with what Delph calls the “horizontal light,” which she only seems to see when contemplating death.
Then there is the real conceit here, which is Mitchell’s use of a unique literary voice. Most writers attempting this story would give each sister their own, first person voice. Barring that, the third person omnipresent would work just as well. Mitchell, however, takes on the much-underused, and vastly more difficult, first person plural voice. She does this in order to give us no single protagonist, and instead, we come to think of the three sisters as one unit. Despite this, we still learn about their individual lives through their storytelling. This gives us a congruous voice to enlighten us about all the preceding generations, and the already introduced humor adds a comical take on their sardonic view of their family’s past.
This makes for an ingeniously told story, probably one of the best I’ve read in some time, despite the inclusion of times and topics discussed, some of which are almost dramatic clichés. These include two World Wars, Jewish persecution and fleeing for their lives, less than ideal marriages, loneliness, estranged relatives, incest, extra-marital affairs, widowhood and cancer. Bundling all this and much more into one family certainly justifies these sisters’ wanting to end it all much more understandable. We only wonder why it took them until they were in their 40s (1999), to realize the time was finally ripe for them.
Other than this, we also might not understand the addition of the last chapter here. This I found to be unnecessary to a certain extent, as well as a bit too brutal. This starkly contrasts with the careful and concise lightness of the rest of the book. That subtle gracefulness, of course, was an amazing achievement, especially considering the sprawling time-frames and weighty issues. Even so, I do understand why Mitchell added this, so despite this small niggle I still highly recommend this book and am giving it a solid four and a half stars out of five.
“A Reunion of Ghosts” by Judith Claire Mitchell published by Harper Collins UK/Harper Press/4th Estate/The Friday Project release date March 24, 2015 is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel for review via NetGalley. (This is a version of my review that appears on my personal blog.)