Published by Harper
Publication date: March 24th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Humor
The Alter sisters, Lady, Vee, and Delph, have decided that, given their family history and their current life situations, it’s time to step off the planet. They’ve picked a date six months away (New Year’s Eve 1999) leaving them time to write a memoir detailing their family tree and the accomplishments of their forebearers. The result is A Reunion of Ghosts, a quirky new novel from Judith Claire Mitchell. Suicide is not a laughing matter nor is breast cancer, World War I, mustard gas, or the Holocaust but Mitchell uses each of these terrible subjects as the background to the Alter family’s history and does so in the context of characters so well wrought that even as their actions are sad and misguided their personalities are hilarious.
It is Delph’s Biblical belief, taken from Exodus 20:5 …the sins of the father are visited upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generations, that launches the novel and explains some of their decision to commit suicide because the Alter troubles began with their great-grandfather, Lenz Alter. A hardworking chemist in Germany in the early 1900s, he creates mustard gas—which he has no qualms about using as a chemical weapon, believing that “death was death”. He later creates a pesticide that, after his death in 1934, becomes Zyklon-B, the gas used to exterminate a million Jews in World War II. Thus the groundwork is laid for the suicides of his wife, his son, his granddaughter, and now, possibly his three great-granddaughters.
It’s not the events in A Reunion of Ghosts that provide the laughs because they are a mixed bag of tragedy, mistake, and misfortune. It is Mitchell’s singular voice embodied in the multitude of voices in the book and imbued with her irreverent imagination that makes the novel so entertaining. Where this humor shines is in the interplay between the sisters, who are so close they acknowledge
And yet this resemblance was also the only reliable and reassuring thing in our lives. There was the sense that we would always have each other. There was, to be honest, a never-articulated belief that we actually were each other, just at different stages of a single life.
A Reunion of Ghosts works on a number of levels. There is the density of historical trivia about events spanning the 20th century which brings back my own memories. Or the fact that such events are written with members of the Alter family appearing in Forrest Gump-like fashion in the middle of these events. Then there is the self-awareness of these sad-sack sisters who realize that maybe their thinking about this action is a bit off.
It was fine, we agreed, not to want to grow old. Fine, too, to take steps to ensure we didn’t grow old. But we’d also avoided growing up. We’d lived our lives like perpetual children, hiding in corners, never knowing what to do. If our plan to die was problematic, it was problematic in that eliminated the possibility of our ever becoming serious, capable women.
It was sad then that a novel that held my interest so thoroughly and provided so much enjoyment (even using such tragic fodder) fell apart at the end. In the Last Words chapter a new narrator closes out A Reunion of Ghosts. This feels almost disrespectful because all along it has been Lady, Vee, and Delph telling their story. And it was novel enough.