Judith Claire Mitchell’s A Reunion of Ghosts explores the dark angles of a curse carried throughout the generations of the Alter family. Sisters Lady, Vee, and Delph utilize the novel’s narrative space as a memoir and three-way suicide note, looking back on past regrets and the faults of previous generations. The reader is immediately submerged in the lives of these three women, commemorating their lost loves, illnesses, and near-psychotic breaks.
Mitchell’s writing is both consistent in style and shamelessly funny despite the novel’s heavy content. The humor is introduced immediately as the novel begins, giving the readers a good idea of the sisters’ personalities:
“Q: How do three sisters write a single suicide note? A: The same way a porcupine makes love: carefully.”
The wit isn’t lacking and neither is the unique imagery. Because the novel does an awful lot of time-hopping, Mitchell is able to successfully put her audience in the vivid scenes of the sisters’ pasts:
“And now it was the Bicentennial, a three-day weekend when incensed New Yorkers took time out of their calls for Ford’s impeachment to cheer the whistling comets and fiery chrysanthemums bursting about the World Trade Center.”
What’s remarkable about the style of this novel is Mitchell’s imagery. Occasionally, she will rely on adjectives and adverbs, but her word choice is impeccable. Every word is written with powerful intent. Even though an excess of adverbs and adjectives can indicate overwriting, this book does not fall victim because Mitchell’s images are so vivid.
Mitchell’s character development skills prompt readers to feel hopeful for the sisters’ potentially changing their minds, even though their impending demise is predictable. From the get-go, readers, perhaps middle-aged women, will find something in common with Lady, Vee, and Delph and recognize each of them as women who have faced deep-rooted hardship.
Yet, this novel is not for someone who is looking for an easy read. Mitchell has a particular style and use of time and space that requires the reader to pay attention. Without proper awareness of the plot, setting, and point-of-view, the narrative will seem disjointed. The Alter family’s story reaches back as far as 19th century Germany, so the curious reader may want to gather a bit of context before getting started. Mitchell truly invites the audience into the world of Lady, Vee, and Delph. It is just a matter of how much of that world the reader would like to invest time into.
“A Reunion of Ghosts” explores the depths of family and how it can become impossible to run away from who you truly are. While the sisters’ time is fleeting, they are forced to face the facts of their family lineage and the consequences of bearing the Alter name. The mistakes made by relatives of the past immortally haunt the family, coaxing Lady, Vee, and Delph into the only solution they find plausible—self-inflicted death. The story itself is complex and cheerless, but Mitchell brings it to life with slapstick characters and excellent writing.
Judith Claire Mitchell is the author of the novels The Last Day of the War and A Reunion of Ghosts. She teaches undergraduate and graduate fiction workshops at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is a professor of English and the director of the MFA program in creative writing. She has received grants and fellowships from the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and Bread Loaf, among others. She lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.
About the author of this post: Katie Draves is a junior at North Central College and is currently upholding the position of co-editor of 30 North. She is studying English and Art and hopes to pursue a career in publishing and editing.