Review: A Reunion of Ghosts, by Judith Claire Mitchell
The Alter sisters are cursed.
It’s all the fault of their great-grandfather, Nobel Prize winning scientist and German Jew Lenz Alter who inadvertently invented Zyklon-B, the gas used in the Nazi concentration camps.
Since then, the family has been plagued by suicide and the occasional untimely death. There was their grandfather, who jumped out of the bedroom window; their mother, who drowned herself in the Hudson River; and their aunt, who mysteriously chose to put a plastic bag over her head in a gents’ toilet in Chicago.
But Lady, Vee and Delph have an ace up their sleeve. They have always known that they were doomed, that “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation.” It’s practically the family motto. As the fourth generation, and all still childless, they’re convinced that they can beat the curse.
The only snag is, it means a joint suicide. That will end the curse, once and for all. So they shut themselves away in their family’s New York apartment and draft a shared suicide note in the form of their family history.
For a novel about suicide, A Reunion of Ghosts is surprisingly funny and well-observed. It’s a darkly comic tragedy that explores the effect the idea of fate can have on our lives and what happens when we start to question its hold over us.
A history of the Alter family and their various troubles, the novel is a study in unrealised potential. So many of the family members have enormous intelligence and ability, like the sisters’ great-grandmother, one of the first women to be admitted to university and gain a doctorate, who ultimately ends up as the wife of a chemist, reduced to running his home but not allowed inside his lab.
The story mixes real historical figures with fictional characters, lending a significance to the Alter’s tale that makes the family curse seem more tangible. The comedy is often found in the details of each character’s life.
Although it deals with a whole range of tragedies, including cancer, suicide and mass murder, the novel manages to strike the right note. This is a story that is still full of warmth and humour. So many awful things affect the Alters that it almost becomes a cosmic joke. It’s easy to see why someone so afflicted by loss and pain might come to believe that the universe is conspiring against them; that they’re doomed to an early death.
But when the sisters stop to look around them, outside the narrow world they have created for themselves, they realise that other lives might have existed for them. Their story might not turn out to be the one they wrote for themselves.
A quirky, funny and terribly sad novel about the power of fate and family ties.
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N.B. I received a copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own.