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.