Review: The Hollins Critic

 Vol 51 No 1 February 2014.inddI’m very grateful to the novelist, poet, and literary critic Kelly Cherry for this review. The review is not available online or at very many news stands or libraries, though you can download the issue of The Hollins Critic that includes the review here for only $2.99.

The Hollins Critic
Vol. LII, No. 1 Hollins University, Virginia
February, 2015

A Reunion of Ghosts. By Judith Claire Mitchell.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. $26.99

I have been searching for a single adjective with which to describe Judith Claire Mitchell’s second novel. Stunning, amazing, brilliant, splendid are all accurate, but not accurate enough. I want an adjective that will encompass a funny book about the Holocaust. A funny book that is about the Holocaust and the nature of time. A funny book that is about the Holocaust, the nature of time, and causality or the absence of causality. Not to mention that it’s also about love and loneliness. You see my dilemma. But it’s my dilemma, not the author’s. The author has found ways to bring together contradictions we might have expected to fly apart. Her novel exists as a rare unity, and rather like an Ethiopian wife bearing river-washed laundry, she balances it all on her head.

Albert Einstein and his marital problems turn up here, but I have to point to physicist Niels Bohr’s complementarity principle to discuss what Mitchell has wrought. The complementarity principle states that phenomena can have mutually exclusive properties, the prime example being an electron, which may be both wave and particle. But the principle outgrew its initial referent and became the notion that a field, or subject, is always adjacent to another field or subject we tend to block out. Not blocking out what is there is what the complementarity principle reminds us to do. We must take in the whole. We must see it, and understand it, as a whole. Hence, humor; hence, tragedy. Hence, now; hence, then.

For the novel travels back to Germany and Poland, to two world wars, to the chemist who developed the gas, Zyklon, that would be used in the wars, and in crematoria to murder Jews, Gypsies, gays, and political dissidents, particularly but not exclusively Communists. The chemist’s descendants include the three sisters who tell their story in this novel. “How do three sisters write a single suicide note?” As the collective author tells us, “The same way a porcupine makes love: carefully.” One of the pleasures of Mitchell’s book is a cheeriness that may function as a whistling in the dark but always presents itself first as wicked good humor.

The three sisters live in their deceased mother’s rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. They are Lady, Vee (for “Veronica”), and Delph. They are short and curvy with bushy hair. Extremely bushy hair. Big boobs, big butts, big hair, but small overall. For the most part, the trio prefer their own company to that of others. They are acutely aware and ashamed of their mutual ancestor, the chemist, and the rampant history of suicides among their forebears. They also accept at face value the biblical passage that states, in both Exodus and Numbers, that “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations.” Lady, Vee, and Delph are the fourth generation.

Despite—or because of—these grim and, as Freud would have said, overdetermined realities, the sisters can joke, dance, comfort one another, and, for better or worse, stand steadfast to their truth.

Is it everyone’s truth? No. But we read this emotionally involving, masterfully structured, intelligent novel to learn about the characters’ truth, not ours. Though, in the way of Niels Bohr, A Reunion of Ghosts invites us to examine our own truths. What is good? What is evil? What do we owe to history? What do we owe to others? To ourselves? These are questions we must try to answer. Too few novels raise them. This novel, raising these questions, will be for many the first step on a journey to wisdom.

And the adjective I was looking for? Sapient.

— Kelly Cherry