Lest you should think I’ve given up my rants about book jackets – it’s quite some time since the last one – I’m going to start this post by pointing you to another review of Judith Claire Mitchell’s novel from Tanya at 52 Books or Bust illustrated with the North American cover. Pop over and have a look, then compare it with the one to the left. Enough said, at least I think so. The novel is the story of the Alter family written in the form of a memoir which is to be the suicide note of the remaining Alters: three sisters, all in their forties, all resolved to kill themselves on New Year’s Eve, 1999.
Lady, Vee and Delph have grown up imbued with the knowledge of the family curse. Their great-grandfather Lenz – friend to Einstein and philandering husband of Iris – was the chemist who first synthesised chlorine gas used to devastating effect in the First World War, then again as a constituent of Zyclon B, piped into the infamous gas chambers of the Second World War. Lenz was a fiercely patriotic German willing to convert from Judaism to Lutheranism to remain in government employ. Both he and Iris committed suicide, as did their son Richard unable to live with the misery of guilt by association. Then came the third generation: Rose, Violet and Dahlie – all of whom continued the family tradition. Now it’s the turn of the fourth, each sister convinced that the sins of their ancestor have been handed down as the Bible prophesies: Delph even has the quotation tattooed on her leg. The time seems right: Lady has tried several times before and feels ready to try again; Vee has been diagnosed with cancer for a third time; and Delph elects to join them. Then something entirely unexpected happens, throwing a different light on the Alter family history.
The sisters begin with their own stories: the constant drip, drip of the family legacy fed to them by their mother, their abandonment by their father, their unhappy adult lives – divorce for Lady, early widowhood and cancer for Vee, and thwarted love for Delph. Threaded through are the stories of the previous three generations, beginning with the sexually incontinent Lenz and Iris, frustrated scientist whose reluctant foray into marriage was supposed to deliver teamwork not housework. Feminism, anti-Semitism and science are three of the many themes running through this big, sprawling novel peopled with familiar names from history. It’s heavily laced with a dark sardonic humour: ‘In the tradition of Jews in the hour before Cossacks arrive, she spent the rest of the day cleaning her apartment and packing her things’; ‘As Bismarck passes, the crowd heaves like an unfettered bosom in a bodice ripper’; men are ‘an entire gender of dented soup cans, all damaged and marked down’, says Lady to which Delph replies ‘I’ll take the salad’ – is just a tiny smattering of the smart wit on offer here. At one point I thought Mitchell might fall for a softer landing but I’m pleased to say she didn’t. Not to everyone’s taste, then, but I thoroughly enjoyed this funny, irreverent novel and will be seeking out Mitchell’s first: The Last Day of War.
That’s it from me for a week or so. I’m off to Majorca in search of a little warm sunshine and an escape from electioneering. Happy reading!