A Reunion of Ghosts

Written by Judith Claire Mitchell
Review by Kate Braithwaite

Lady, Vee and Delph Alter are three sisters in their forties, writing what they describe as a family memoir, a quasi-confessional and a joint suicide note.

“Q: How do three sisters write a single suicide note?

A: The same way as a porcupine makes love: carefully.”

Suicide runs in the Alter family. Their mother, two aunts, their grandfather and two great-grandparents have all committed suicide: part, they believe, of a family curse. The youngest sister, Delph, has a tattoo on her calf explaining it that reads “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generations.”

The sisters are the 4th and last generation, but in A Reunion of Ghosts they tell the story from the 1st generation onwards, moving back and forth through history from the late 19th century to the close of the 20th. Their great-grandfather, Lorenz Otto Alter, is called “World War I hero, World War I criminal,” and it is his sins that they believe have doomed them all.

A Reunion of Ghosts is a very consciously literary novel. Mitchell takes an unusual point of view with the three sisters narrating the novel together. Instead of a conventional first-person narrator, Mitchell writes in the first person plural. Together they have a unique and often humorous voice, relating and commenting on the lives and deaths of their forebears as well as their own lives. The result is an unusual novel, full of light and darkness. Although the sisters are purely fictional, the character of their great-grandfather is based on the life of Franz Haber, known as the father of chemical warfare.

Mitchell, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is clearly an accomplished wordsmith. Although A Reunion of Ghosts proved to be too studied to be truly engaging, there is much to admire here.