A Reunion of Ghosts – review

Every now and then I come across a book that gives me what I can only describe as an internal squiggle of delight as I start reading; delight because I can tell straight away that it’s going to be phenomenal.  Within a couple of pages I was grinning with the knowledge that in “A Reunion of Ghosts” I had found such a book.  It tracks the history of the Alter family – five generations of people whose lives, it’s fair to say, haven’t been of the most upbeat variety.  If you’re an Alter, you’re something of an anomaly if you don’t have a death wish.  Great grandmothers, grandfathers and aunts hurl themselves into rivers or through windows with alarming regularity.  And at the bottom of this rather wretched family tree are the narrators, three sisters who are planning to draw a line under their ancestors’ sorry story once and for all by means of a suicide pact to be carried out on New Year’s Eve 1999.

If this all sounds slightly farcical, well, to an extent it is.  From start to finish this novel hovers on a very fine line between the comically absurd and the genuinely tragic.  One episode involving a botched suicide attempt pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of making me laugh and cry at the same time.  In fact, the whole book is built around a reversible conceit: in the midst of despair there is always humour to be found and conversely, behind an apparently comic situation can lie real pain.

The three sisters whose “suicide note” forms the novel are incredibly witty narrators.  Their dry humour prevails right up to the end of the book (although what that end is I won’t reveal here).  They accept the legacy of their family’s “curse”, as they call it, with wry resignation.  Yet, as they gradually construct their family tree for us, they, along with other members of the apparently doomed Alter clan, pose the question: to what extent does one generation carry the weight of the sins committed by the one before?  And there are, as we discover, some very dark episodes in the Alters’ history; events so horrific and far-reaching that successive generations seem to have arrived at the point of believing their very existence to be a kind of penance for actions carried out by their forefathers years ago.  Can anyone ever escape the burden of their family’s past or is it inevitable that eventually we will be crushed by the weight of everything that’s gone before, with guilt passing through the generations as surely as if it were in our genes?

My hunch that this was going to be a standout novel wasn’t wrong – it is absolutely remarkable.  With its slightly bizarre premise it could easily have been either an unbelievable melodrama or an out-and-out black comedy, but the author has been exceptionally clever in ensuring it becomes neither.  The writing is stylish, the characters incredibly real and the experience of reading it genuinely emotional.  I would recommend it to pretty much everyone.

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