A Reunion of Ghosts Judith Claire Mitchell Harper, 2015; 400 pages
The title of this absorbing and darkly comic novel refers to a group of ghosts, and it is a very fitting title. Three smart and sardonic sisters, Jewish New Yorkers with a devastating family history, make a decision to kill themselves on the last day of the 20th century. The novel is the treatise they write as a collective suicide note – something their ghostly ancestors (who all died by their own hands) never had the courtesy to leave to them.
Fate has dealt the middle-aged Alter sisters an unlucky hand. The novel moves back and forth in time between their individual lives and devastating losses to the story of their great-grand-father, Lorenz Otto Alter, whose horrifying sins caused the family curse they believe they have inherited. “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd & 4th generations” is the biblical quote tattooed on the calf of Delph, the youngest sister, and the one who most strongly believes in her family’s twisted fate. “Genius and monster,” they write of their ancestor, “he was the scientist who doomed us all.” Delph lives with her older sisters, Lady and Vee, and they describe themselves as a “partner-less, childless and petless sorority.” They intend to end it all in cosmic atonement for their German scientist great-grandfather’s invention of poison gas – the killing machine of World War I and the precursor to Zyklon B. (The character is based on the controversial Fritz Haber – chemist, Jewish-born Lutheran, and friend of Einstein who fled from the Nazis before his sinister chemical concoctions could kill him.) The details of the difficult Alter family legacy give the reader insight into their motivations and we are put in the position of oddly empathizing with their macabre desire while hoping they will find a way out of doing the final deed.
We like the sisters and root for them. It’s true that they are depressed and haunted by the past, but they find droll humor in the darkness. Lady’s first suicide attempt reads like a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Of course, knowing she did not succeed helps, but even she says from her hospital bed: “Someday this will be funny.” And there are laughs through-out the book, from the 19th century portrait of Otto Von Bismarck hanging over the toilet to the offhand inclusion of the travails of Nim Chimpsky, the chimp who knows sign language. The themes of fate, coincidence, family ties and family curses, and the power of genetics are all bound up in the sisters’ smart and acerbic observations. This is what keeps us reading and on edge with hope for their redemption.
It feels late to still be receiving reviews, but it also feels very good. This one is from Rob Cline of The Cedar Rapids Gazette, and the writing teacher in me feels compelled to say that it is precisely, succinctly, and gorgeously written. (Would I have been so generous in my comments, if Mr. Cline hadn’t been so generous in his? All I can say is that I hope so!)
‘A Reunion of Ghosts’: Author balances history, fiction into compelling novel
August 16, 2015 | 8:00 am
By Rob Cline, correspondent
In Judith Claire Mitchell’s new novel, “A Reunion of Ghosts,” three middle-aged sisters decide to take their own lives on Dec. 31, 1999. In the run up to the fateful date, they pen a book-length suicide note, written in a communal voice, explaining their family’s troubled and troubling history. At the center of that history is their great-grandfather, a German-Jewish chemist responsible for the creation of chemical weapons and the gas used by the Nazis in their death camps.
Mitchell, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has accomplished an impressive structural, aesthetic and narrative feat. The choral voice of the Alter sisters is perfectly rendered, and Mitchell infuses that voice with a humor that leavens the book’s dark themes and tone.
She also balances historical fact and the requirements of her fictional story with aplomb. As her notes and bibliography attest, she did significant research into the life and family of Fritz Haber, the man who did, in fact, create the weapons ascribed to Mitchell’s fictional Lenz Alter. But she recast the facts of Haber’s life for the purposes of her tale. The history — both real and imagined — is woven seamlessly into the narrative, which consistently focuses on family.
In addition to providing a gripping narrative, “A Reunion of Ghosts” plumbs the depths of some fundamental questions. To what degree are we responsible for and affected by the triumphs and failures of our ancestors? Is the universe driven by chance or is there a force of some sort shaping our experience? How does (and should) one go on when one feels unable to go on?
In the final passages of the novel, Mitchell delivers several surprises and reversals that add emotional weight to what is already a resonant and affecting book. These surprises are executed with care, intended less to shock the reader than to upend expectations in ways that, in retrospect, seem wholly true to the story the Alter sisters have been telling.
“A Reunion of Ghosts” is a significant accomplishment.
I’m deeply moved by this thoughtful review by Rabbi Goldie Milgrim in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.
Judith Claire Mitchell’s novel A Reunion of Ghosts leverages bitter ironies about the scientific and intimate lives of Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein to build a profoundly engaging work of high literary quality. Books by the generation after the Holocaust, often descendants of survivors, so-called “second-generation” Jews, are being published almost daily. The deft approach in this novel offers us a gift–that of fiction as a way of considering the effect of the Holocaust on contemporary lives. There is also savory dark humor which serves to keep the reader from sinking into a severe depression at the sad condition of the lives of these New York City sisters.
Mitchell’s skillful imagining of dark, difficult, severely self-occupied inner lives for three of Haber’s imagined descendants turns upon a multifaceted approach to the Biblical precept tattooed upon the ankle of one:
“For I, the Lord, your God, who visits the sins of parents upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those that hate me.” Exodus 20:15, see also Numbers 14:18
In A Reunion of Ghosts, the endless debating of Biblical scholars and polemicists about which generations these might be — Biblical or through the present, matter not, for the main characters—three middle-aged New York City sisters, do not appear to be aware of the end of the verse: “of those that hate me.” Or, perhaps they reason that anyone whose science gets appropriated for committing genocide is going to sire subsequent generations with afflicted lives. Or, is being the recipient of self-absorbed parenting a sufficient rationale for endless misery? Do descendants of compound debacles have the right to end their own miserable lives? This possibility is a strong narrative line in the text. Would, or would not, such a choice be “God’s hand” in action?
Judaism has strong views on suicide, we are not given the right to take our own lives. Life begins once our head has emerged from the birth canal and the first breath has been taken. Now in halachah–Jewish law– there is a category of ethics that is l’hathillah—the reigning principles for a good life. B’di-avad—-after the fact, an act such as suicide is viewed as caused by mental illness, e.g. severe depression. That said, save for the shiva ritual of a week of mourning, these sisters show little knowledge of their Judaism–save for the gruesome history of their family and the impact of their grandfather’s legacy upon the Jewish people and others murdered by gas of warfare and gas chambers created by Haber. Perhaps the sisters contemplate the unimaginable because the sages, as statistics show, were correct: In families where there is a known suicide, far more are likely to occur. You may recall this concept is central to the the movie Yentl, as this was the reason one of the characters was not marriageable. Apparently, Jewish sages’ transmitted through Jewish practice their observation that suicide can carry on as a trait in future generations.
A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell is beautifully-written fiction with a unique style that is compelling through every dark moment. This sad story will also facilitate study of the depths of Jewish tradition on such topics as death, suicide, guilt, innovation, the Holocaust. It will lead Jewish educators to consider whether we communicate the principles of Judaism effectively. Contemplation of whether the Jewish people’s evolving relationship to Torah is divine enough to stay our hands from murder of self or other sore souls is almost inevitable in the wake of A Reunion of Ghosts.
Excellent also for university and book group settings, A Reunion of Ghosts will retain that rare place on the shelves of potential posterity.
Mitchell’s novel is an exploration of unintended consequences and the burdens of well-mapped bloodlines, brought together in a perfect confluence of humor and despair. Its narrators are the Alter sisters, three intelligent, tragedy-plagued women bound together by antiquing family regrets and a suicide pact. The book becomes their farewell. They detail generations of family triumphs and mishaps, recalling loves gone awry and lamenting the regrettable best-of-intentions invention that brought Germany one step closer to Zyklon B. Mitchell’s book made me laugh (right before religious services!) and cry, and will remain distinct in my memory as a rare novel that deals with huge historical events–the Holocaust, pogroms–without becoming either tedious or cloying. This novel is a surprise and a treat.
There is also an earlier review, naming Reunion a best book of June 2015 here.
What do the ubiquitous Gone Girl, the middle-school novel Stolen Voices, and A Reunion of Ghosts have in common? I’d have answered, “Nothing much,” until I saw this month’s Mademoiselles De Mode. So now I know that they are that Dutch magazine’s three must reads for summer.
Given that my Dutch is non-existent, I ran the review through Google Translator. The take-away line says, “This is a special book that is both interesting and unlike any other.” And I also learned that in Dutch “Vee,” the name of one of my main characters, apparently means an animal raised for meat, leading to sentences throughout the review like, “Three sisters, Lady, Livestock, and Delph, wish to commit suicide” and “One of the sisters, Cattle, is dying of cancer.” No wonder why Vee is so moooody.
While it could have become a depressing read, Mitchell injects pearls of hilarity throughout the story. It is dark, funny, and deeply touching. The sisters’ voice could have become self-pitying, but Mitchell keeps it bright and real.
Two new reviews of A Reunion of Ghosts this weekend, the first from the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle and the second from the Otago Daily Times in New Zealand. If you, like me, did not know anything about the Otago Peninsula, it apparently looks like this and additionally has beautiful sandy beaches where seals and penguins live in abundance. Also: fjords. In other news–next vacation is definitely to the Otago Peninsula.
This put a big smile on my face: a very nice review for A Reunion of Ghosts broadcast on New Zealand National Radio. The reviewer says, “It made me cry and it made me laugh and what more can you ask for?”
A review in the Israeli paper Haaretz today has a very considered analysis of the historically-based characters in A Reunion of Ghosts, for which I’m beyond grateful. I’m pasting the entire review here because, though it’s free, you’d have to register to read it.
Four generations of a Jewish family tainted by Nazi poison
‘A Reunion of Ghosts’ by Judith Claire Mitchell features three suicidal sisters whose ancestor created the precursor to Zyklon B.
There’s a chart, concise yet precise, on the wall of the New York apartment shared by the three spinster Alter sisters. It’s a family tree of sorts: a reminder of the sisters’ illustrious roots, but also a memento mori pointing the way to the family’s end. Four generations, two continents and a Nobel prize, held together by a single, malevolent thread: the suicide of every direct ancestor of the sisters in the three generations that preceded them.
Judith Claire Mitchell’s novel “A Reunion of Ghosts” begins in the summer of 1999, as the three childless sisters conclude the time has come to end their lives, and the Alter family tree. “We like the chart,” they explain in the epistle that serves as their collective suicide note. “We see order and routine. We see soothing predictability and reassuring inevitability.” And so the book explains why the Alter family history, spanning 1870s Germany to 1990s America, must end in their apparently inevitable death.
Poison, both figurative and real, is the leitmotif of this family saga. By the time we meet the Alter sisters, they have been consumed, in different ways, by the unsparing vicissitudes of their times; their emotionally drained childhoods have led to inconclusive relationships and unfulfilled ambitions. Lady, the oldest at 49, has allowed herself to succumb to a gentle yet insistent despair. She dresses in black, “in the way of someone who finds making an effort exhausting”; she holds her greying hair back in a long braid. She gave up wearing a bra long ago, and “her sagging breasts make her appear rounder than she is.” She affects to be untroubled by her amorphousness: “It’s not like I’m trying to meet someone.”
Vee, the middle sister, goes braless too, but not by choice. Cancer and a double mastectomy have stripped her of her physical identity; many years earlier, her one true love was excised from her life just as violently and cruelly. Delph, at 42 the youngest, could be mistaken for the optimist of the three, with her untamed hair, peasant blouses and flowing skirts. But the tattoo wrapped around her calf suggests otherwise. From a distance it looks like a chain, but up close it reveals itself to be a single sentence, a restraint of another kind: “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd & 4th generations.”
Jewish by culture, German by faith
Otto Lenz Alter, the father whose sins will in due course filter down to the fourth generation, had his fate settled for him early. “Three fathers,” his father crooned to him in his cradle. “Me, Bismarck, God.” But for a German Jew born in Breslau at the beginning of the Second Reich, there’s no chance of balancing family, faith and Fatherland.
First to be let down is the biological father, when Lenz decides to pursue a doctorate in chemistry rather than join the family’s dyeing business. Judaism comes next. Lenz wasn’t observant to begin with, and once he understands that his academic career would benefit from certain adjustments to his personal circumstances, he willingly converts. “Being Jewish was his culture, but being German was his faith,” Mitchell writes. Professional success — discovering a process for the synthesis of artificial manure, a guano substitute, from liquid ammonia — and directorship of the prestigious Dahlem Institute for Physical Chemistry follow. Perhaps Lenz’s pragmatic choices might pay off after all. When Kaiser Wilhelm II delivers the inaugural address at the institute, he says of Lenz: “His current work is crucial to maintaining Germany’s stature in the world.” It is 1911, three years before the Great War, and Lenz would soon have the chance to prove his devotion to the Fatherland, but at significant personal cost.
Lenz’s skill in tweaking ammonia into fertilizer saved lives, by increasing crop yields and feeding growing populations. But tweaking it there instead of here created something else, something capable of taking lives rather than saving them: the world’s first effective chemical weapon. When the Great War breaks out, Lenz — patriot and German above all — presents his breakthrough to the kaiser: “How is being dead different if it’s caused by chlorine gas rather than by flying pieces of metal?” Lenz asks rhetorically. The gas killed thousands; this, and the guilt that followed, became Lenz’s poisonous legacy to his descendants.
For a pessimistic contrast to Lenz’s optimistic, assimilationist tendencies, Mitchell gives us Iris Emanuel, Lenz’s wife, who provides the insight that the true cost of hewing off one’s identity becomes clear only if the anticipated payoff never arrives. As ambitious as her husband and more intelligent, her sacrifices — surrendering her family, her faith and, finally, her femininity — weren’t enough for her to be accepted by the intelligentsia. She’s a woman, after all, and the Belle Epoque wasn’t quite so beautiful for the fairer sex.
Cyanide, suffocation and drowning
Generation-spanning fiction of this type works best when historical fact serves as a reference point for imaginary lives, rather than as a raison d’être for the fiction itself. The early segments of “A Reunion of Ghosts” are founded upon recognizable historical affairs — what Einstein, who has a walk-on part as an acquaintance of Lenz, once described as the German-Jewish “tragedy of the unrequited love for the blond beast.” Although the characters of Lenz and his wife were inspired by the lives of the German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber and his first wife, Clara, what matters more for this fiction is how convincingly their imaginary counterparts attempt to negotiate their pre-ordained fate — pre-ordained from the reader’s perspective, at least. Unrequited love almost always comes to a bad end.
Iris and Lenz, who end their lives in 1915 and 1934 respectively, are spared from finding out just how bad an end, as their imperfect era is eclipsed by the dark shadows of the 1930s and the Third Reich. Richard, their only child, makes it as far as America, at the end of World War II, before defenestrating himself; the knowledge that his father’s legacy was the basis for Zyklon B pushes him over the edge.
His three daughters follow the same path: cyanide, suffocation, drowning. Before Dahlie, Richard’s youngest daughter, throws herself into the Hudson River, she makes sure her daughters understand that their lives will always be tainted by their forebear’s actions. No antidote.
The principal strength of “A Reunion of Ghosts” is Mitchell’s astute and feeling characterizations. The panoramic perspective of decades lends the three Alter sisters — and before them their ancestor Iris — a sharp authenticity, a realness that intensifies as the years pass and they gradually, gracelessly submit to the existential despair that springs eternal for them. (The description of Vee’s battle against breast cancer is especially empathetic.)
Mitchell, director of the MFA creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has an ear attuned to the absurdities that accompany the banality of everyday life. What could have been a very bleak book is instead defined by a mordant sense of humor. “Mom in the river with rocks in her socks,” the sisters write, setting the tone for their intimate engagement with death. The reader is never allowed to, heaven forbid, feel sorry for Mitchell’s characters, as they never feel sorry for themselves.
But there is something missing, nonetheless. When measured against Iris’ futile struggle against the failures of her age, her great-granddaughters at times feel curiously stripped of agency. Through their eyes, their failed relationships and unfulfilled lives seem inevitable. But because they evolve through the book so vividly and fully, it is hard to reconcile this passivity with their realness. The introduction, late in the book, of an unexpected counter-narrative holds out a sliver of hope that they might yet escape their end.
Perhaps, one thinks, their suicide pact might become just one part of an affecting and tortured family history, rather than its last note. It is to Mitchell’s credit that the last quarter of the book resonates, despite the sharp turn in tone; with a lesser writer, the fate of the Alters wouldn’t matter nearly as much.
Actually, I’d written almost the entire book before it dawned on me that “a reunion of ghosts,” in addition to being exactly what it sounds like (a bunch of ghosts coming together from far and wide to hang out and talk about old times) could also be read as a collective noun. When it finally hit me (I know; I’m kinda slow on the uptake) I did allow one of my characters to use the phrase “a reunion of ghosts” in the Liptonesque way–a gaggle of geese, a herd of buffalo, a reunion of ghosts–but it never struck me as necessary to mention Lipton’s book…nor the earlier, primary sources that originally compiled lists of collective nouns.
Per the link above, I’m remedying that oversight here. And you know what would be cool? If readers began buying both A Reunion of Ghosts and An Exaltation of Larks together, so that the Amazon algorithm began pairing them.
Is there a collective noun for a group of books that ought to live side by side on a bookshelf?