Review: The Straits Times

The Sunday Arts Section of the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times features a lengthy review of A Reunion of Ghosts, which I’ve included here because I think it may be behind a paywall (I kind of can’t tell). The Straits Times also reprinted the great review I got from the UK’s Daily Mail the other day and is going to publish an interview with me. In short, I am very high on The Straits Times.

FAMILY HISTORY IN A SUICIDE NOTE
A Reunion Of Ghosts is a subversive comedy on science and gender inequality
  • The Straits Times
  • 5 Apr 2015
  • A REUNION OF GHOSTS Fourth Estate/Paperback/388 pages/ $28.89/ akshitan@sph.com.sg

A Reunion Of Ghosts is a woman’s history of the 20th century, a story of scientific advancement, sexual inequality and the suicidal impulse of humanity to move from disaster to disaster in the name of progress.

It is no coincidence that the narrators are three sisters whose deepest attachment is to each other rather than to a partner or child, for such relationships might anchor them to the present and interest them in the future.

However, accident and tragedy still befall Lady, Vee and their “baby” sister Delph Alter, leaving them man-less, childless and devastated by the spectre of Vee’s cancer at the cusp of the millennium. In their 40s and not desiring to survive each other, the sisters decide to pen their family history and die together before the year 2000 dawns.

Their planned death on Dec 31, 1999, will symbolise the end of one of the most important periods of advancement in human history, which their family can claim to have shaped.

The sisters’ great-grandfather Lenz created nitrogen fertilisers to increase crop production and reduce food shortages, but he also designed the chemical gas used by Germany against Allied troops in World War I.

It was a horribly ironic first step towards the gas used by the Nazis to kill Jews in concentration camps and a discovery that deforms the rest of the family tree. From Lenz’s wife Iris to their son Richard and their granddaughters – including the sisters’ mother – every member of the family chooses an early death out of guilt or the manic depression which seems to accompany each person’s above-average mental faculties.

The sisters’ book-length family history is a suicide note and an attempt to untangle their complicated identity. In the same way as 20th-century society went from being centred on religion to focusing on science, and eventually a self-centred fatalism and general apathy towards the rest of humanity, the Alters have gone “from God to bones to nothing”.

Lenz denied his Jewish heritage, brought up on the popular sentiment of the time to choose instead pride and blind faith in his country Germany, but was eventually ostracised for the heritage he had forsworn.

His wife Iris was pushed in a different direction, towards denying her considerable academic talent and rare doctorate in chemistry for the domestic sphere.

She took her life out of frustration as well as disgust at what her husband had created. It is worth noting that her character is based on the real-life German chemist Clara Immerwahr, wife of Nobel Prize-winner Fritz Haber, the inventor of fertilisers and poison gas.

From “bones to nothing” is the next step of devolution. The sister-authors of the narrative admit they have accomplished absolutely nothing of note because their lives are bound up in making sense of their history rather than moving on from the past.

In spite of this, A Reunion Of Ghosts is not a tragedy or even a sad book.

The second novel of American author Judith Claire Mitchell and coming 10 years after her first, it is a delightfully cheeky and subversive story, highlighting what is either deliberately hidden or overlooked in the accepted narrative of history: the contributions of a scientist’s equally qualified wife to his published research, for example, or the price of genius.

Take one of the most unsettling parts of the book, a contract the famous physicist Albert Einstein made his first wife Mileva sign in return for his agreeing to continue their marriage – he would eventually divorce her and marry his cousin Elsa. In the contract, reproduced from an actual document, Mileva is to agree to forgo his company at home or in public, to expect no intimacy and to stop talking to him at his request.

Genius can be allowed its foibles, is the message, unless of course, the genius is female. Mileva was the only female allowed into the same school as Albert, at a time when society did not sanction feminine presence outside the domestic sphere, but today, historians remain divided as to whether she contributed to Albert’s early research.

Mitchell makes these and other terrible truths palatable through humour, the same death-row brand that Iris and her peers use to confront the banality and uselessness of their lives.

Down three generations and Lady, Delph and Vee revel in their uselessness, citing the blackness of their family’s past and the orderly truncation of the family tree as reason to live lightly and without thought for the future, to hold no aspirations or dreams, to look forward to exiting the world and closing the chapter on their once-illustrious, once-maligned, now forgotten family name.

When they end, the 20th century will end as well. A chapter will close, but this is not cause for mourning since another will start – literally, towards the end of the novel, and it is a chapter with all the bright optimism of the last 100 years revived.

The Last Day Of The War by the same author (2005, Anchor, $31.30), another black comedy. Towards the end of World War I, an 18-year-old Jewish girl falls in love, follows an American soldier overseas and takes up the cause of the Armenians massacred in 1915.

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