A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell: The sins of the fathers…

Cover imageLest 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!

8 thoughts on “A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell: The sins of the fathers…”

  1. To be honest, I don’t like either of the covers very much… Makes the book feel all cutesy – and I think, from what you say about it, that it’s not, it’s mordant wit rather than cutie-pie crowd-pleasing humour.

    1. That’s interesting. I’m quite taken with the North American cover, as you can tell. The UK one suggests an amorphous mass – maybe the designer had ectoplasm in mind! Spot on in your description of the humour.

        1. You’re welcome, Tanya. I always enjoy your jacket comparison posts. Fascinating to see what the North American and UK arms of publishers think will work for their readers.

  2. I seem to have seen this cover in lots of places, pre-publicity perhaps for a novel that’s been marked as significant, but it’s true that it doesn’t say much about the content! I’m on the fence about this novel, as I think it’s a book that will stand or fall by the voice, and that may be a question of purely personal taste. But since you enjoyed it, that’s one big tick in the credit side of the accounts!

    1. That’s very nice of you to say so. I think you have to have a liking for sardonic humour to enjoy this novel, and not mind lots of discursion. As for the cover, I’m not at all sure what it’s supposed to say to readers.

    1. It’s very sharp and punny in places too, something for which I have a weakness. Thank you – how I wish I could come back the Wednesday before polling day!

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