It’s not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us,” says Helen Alving in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. “It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t shake them off.” What to do with the dead weight of the past is the central dilemma consuming the lives of the three Alter sisters in Judith Claire Mitchell’s splendidly dark and comic novel A Reunion of Ghosts.
There’s not the faintest chance of missing the fact that this is the central dilemma of their lives, because the very first thing we learn about the Alter sisters is that encircling the ankle of one of them is a tattoo that reads “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd & 4th generations”.
Only a few pages later and we’ve also discovered that the sisters have recently hit upon a solution — the only solution, as they see it — to their unwanted inheritance: joint suicide. “We talked it over at dinner. We slept on it that night. The next morning we made a pact. All for one and one for all. If one of us goes, all of us go. Everybody out of the pool.” A Reunion of Ghosts makes no bones of its intentions: it is a family memoir, a group biography and a joint suicide note.
Mitchell teaches English and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and A Reunion of Ghosts, her second novel, has been a decade in the making. Her acclaimed debut, The Last Day of the War, displayed a similar talent for combining contemporary and historical events, in that case, the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Here, though, the year is 1999. Lady, Vee and Delph Alter are middle-aged New Yorkers sharing the family apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They have neither children nor spouses, nor, as far as they know, any living relatives. One of them has terminal cancer. One of them is widowed. They are eccentric, witty, introverted and tightly bound together by what they call the “curse”, the recurrence of suicide in their family from one generation to the next. “We sometimes describe it as a chit we were each handed at birth, a card to get out of jail free”. For Lady, Vee and Delph, the last of the Alters, it is not so much a matter of if, but of when.
Not only is suicide so frequent in the Alter family that it has become banal, it is also discussed and described with startling comedic irreverence. Failed relationships, thwarted ambition, crippling shame — the reasons may be genuinely awful but Mitchell refuses to grant gravitas to the act itself. When Lady attempts to hang herself in the basement of their apartment block, she is saved by a rusty pipe and the 13th- hour recollection that she still has a stolen photo of Beef, her lover’s dog, in her handbag. Yet, despite the humour, Mitchell does not trivialise the seriousness of ending one’s own life.
Driving the novel’s plot is the story behind the Alter family curse. Spliced with the modern-day narrative is that of the sisters’ ancestors: prosperous German Jews who in the 19th century made their money by manufacturing the indigo dye needed for the uniforms of the Prussian army. But then came their great-grandfather Lenz Alter, a brilliant chemist who would be awarded a Nobel Prize for fertiliser but whose other inventions included the poison gas used against the French in the first world war and Zyklon-B, deployed to such terrible ends in the Nazi gas chambers.
“Huge sinner,” one of the characters explains to another. “His sins poured down on the family like maple syrup.” But the consequences for Lenz Alter’s descendants are anything but sweet. What do you do with the knowledge that your great-grandfather made possible the murder of millions of people, including most of your extended family?
Real-life historical figures are intermingled with Mitchell’s fictional creations. Lenz Alter and his wife Iris are friends with Albert and Mileva Einstein. Lenz Alter himself is closely modelled, as Mitchell acknowledges in an afterword, on German-Jewish scientist Fritz Haber. These historical underpinnings add to its powerful undertow.
A Reunion of Ghosts is a very funny book but it is also tender, sombre and thought-provoking. Narrated in the first-person plural, it is often impossible to tell which of the sisters is telling the story, their identities and experiences merged into one collective voice — and yet questions of individuality and self-determination are omnipresent. Where do we as individuals stop and start? Can we escape the ghosts of the past? Can we shake off the lifeless beliefs that bind us? What is the nature of their power? Is it just a matter of how we tell the story, of what we give weight to, what we choose to ignore? Are we the playthings of the gods, or the deus ex machina in our own scripts? For Vee Alter, “the meaning of life had always been that life had no meaning, and the moral of the story was that there was no moral of the story. Things that seemed significant weren’t.” Whether author or reader agree with her is another matter entirely.
A Reunion of Ghosts, by Judith Claire Mitchell, Fourth Estate, RRP£14.99/ Harper, RRP$26.99, 400 pages
Rebecca Abrams is the author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)
Illustration by Simon Pemberton