James Gault reviews A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell
Any comedy written about three middle aged sisters who make a pact to commit suicide on New Years’s Eve of the millennium can be nothing other than black comedy. And,as in all black comedy, this one is a battle between the laughs and the darkness.
Set in the USA, where success is the fount of all ambition and the ultimate accolade, these three women are unmitigated failures. A divorcee, a widow twice victim to cancer, and a middle aged virgin not so much ignored by men as invisible to them, they have been dealt all the low cards in life’s game. Add in a dark family secret and a preponderance for suicide among their recent ancestors, and the almost absent evaluation of self-worth is hardly surprising.
Yet it is this kind of dire situation which spawns typical New-York Jewish humour and the book reads like a feminist version of a Woody Allen film script, apart from some pretty awful plays on words which might have been better left out. As a Woody Allen fan, I found it funny, but if you hate the New York film maker, you might not get the humour.
However, there is a problem in terms of the reader’s engagement with the characters. Ms Mitchell has taken the innovative step of writing the novel in the first person plural. The frequent use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ gives the impression, not of three characters, but of three incarnations of the same character. Individually, they are always referred to in the third person, which reinforces the idea that being part of the three is more important than their individual existence. This may have been the writer’s intention, but it made it hard for me to form any kind of separate identity for each. The novel is in the form of an extended suicide note, written jointly by the three of them, but with contributions from each. The problem was that the contributions were indistinguishable, one from another. The writer could have given each of the women a different voice, but she chose not too. I had the impression that these women shared everything, not just their genes and their heritage, but their experiences, their emotions and even to some extent their men. Does this make it hard for the reader to care about them as real people?
How much you emphasised with the characters will determine whether, for you, the humour overcame the tragedy of their story. The best black comedy? I feel, should have you smiling as you read and sad when you finish. This novel may well have done that for me, but only if the author had resisted the temptation to be clever in her form of narration and her use of words, and concentrated more on engaging the reader’s feelings.
But all the same it’s a very good novel; not a case of failure but a case of just missing out on perfection.
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