A Reunion of Ghosts, by Judith Claire Mitchell, is a novel of poignancy and dark humour. It tells the tale of three, middle aged, Jewish sisters living in New York at the turn of the century. It is written as their suicide note.
Throughout their lives these sisters have believed that they were condemned by a family curse. Their great grandfather, a Nobel prize winning chemist, was responsible for the development of a product used to kill thousands in times of war, a product so deadly that they believe it continues to poison the world today. Each generation of the family since has had members who have committed suicide, a legacy that the sisters intend to emulate. This book tells the story of four generations of their family. It is a history passed down to them and experienced by them; the repercussions have coloured their lives.
Despite the shadow of death that pervades the tale this is not a depressing story to read. Puns and perceptive observations add wit and wisdom. The voices given to the sisters is stereotypically Jewish despite their claims to have no interest in the faith.
The prose is full of insightful asides that caused me to pause periodically to digest. In their efforts to try to come to terms with themselves the sisters dissect every experience looking for coincidences, reasons, proof that the family curse exists. These thoughts and discussions offer the reader a window on not just the lives that the sisters lead but on life.
They are incredibly close, living together in the same sprawling apartment that their grandparents furnished with the family heirlooms brought to America when they fled Europe and Hitler. The sisters still organise the kitchen cupboards as their mother and grandmother did. Even in the mundane they seem unable to move on.
This is a fascinating story that weaves fact into fiction with aplomb. It takes historical figures and real events as a basis from which to create a mostly fictional family history. It explores the damage that can be caused when troubles are considered to be preordained and deserved, and when such thoughts are given credence by others.
I enjoy family sagas, and this one is deftly written. Perhaps it was the unfashionable idea that death is simply an inevitable part of life that appealed, that it is not to be feared and is available as a choice. What should not be ignored is the brutal impact such choices can have on the living.
The final chapters added another dimension to the tale and created a satisfying denouement. The pathos of these sisters’ lives was perhaps that they never tried to live in any other way.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fourth Estate.