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Review: A Reunion of Ghosts

Slow death by laughter

    Judith Claire Mitchell — offers a master-class in tragi-comedy
    Judith Claire Mitchell — offers a master-class in tragi-comedy

    By Judith Claire Mitchell
    4th Estate, £14.99

    Judith Claire Mitchell's second novel takes the form of a 370-page suicide note. Make that a triple suicide note. It's also one of the sharpest, tartest, flat-out funniest books you're likely to read any time soon.

    Taking its title from the collective noun for spooks, A Reunion of Ghosts is narrated by Lady, Vee and Delph Alter. A divorcee, a widower and a spinster respectively, the 40-something sisters share - among other traits and convictions - feminism, shortness, and a fondness for excessive tippling and mordant word play.

    Even if they didn't sometimes share clothes, too, they'd probably still be mistaken for one another by neighbours on New York's Upper West Side, where they live together in the rent-controlled apartment in which they grew up. It's little wonder they tell their story in the first person plural.

    But they also have something else in common - the curse that lies at the novel's heart. Lest they forget, Delph has it tattooed on her ankle: "The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd & 4th generations". The sins are those of Lenz Alter, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist loosely based on the German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber.

    They’ve already had their share of ill luck, including lost love, murdered husbands and cancer

    As Mitchell tells it, Lenz invented the process used to create synthetic fertiliser, thereby feeding large swathes of the world. But he also created chemical warfare, and his work ultimately led to the development of Zyklon B.

    On the back of Delph's door hangs a chart. It reads: "Great-Grandma Iris in the garden with a gun. Aunt Violet in the bedroom with a plastic bag. Mom in the river with rocks in her socks," tallying half-a-dozen suicides in three generations. All this is because of Lenz's work, the sisters believe.

    As the fourth generation, they've already had their share of ill luck, including lost love, murdered husbands and recurrent cancer, not to mention prior suicide attempts.

    But it's when Vee is given just a few months to live that they make their pact: they will go together on 31 December 1999, at the very end of the century with whose fate their own family history is so fatally entwined.

    Their "note" doubles as the Alter family saga, and it takes in thwarted female ambition, conversion, patriotism, and the Einsteins, who are mired in a marital rough patch.

    Leaving Europe for America, it later packs in waterbeds and fumbling orgies in the 1970s, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and countless bitter-sweet episodes like Lady's affair with a dentist and Delph's sessions with a terrible trainee shrink.

    In making their pact, the sisters haven't bargained on an interruption from Aunt Violet - she of the supposed death-by-plastic-bag notoriety.

    Violet's appearance galvanises the novel just as it appears to be flagging, ensuring that this master-class in tragi-comedy sustains its anarchic tempo until the very end.

The Jewish Chronicle

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