Judith Claire Mitchell's "A Reunion of Ghosts" is a darkly comic, multigenerational meditation on a family curse. Lady, Vee and Delph Alter are middle-aged sisters, roommates and descendants of the German Jewish chemist (a fictionalized Fritz Haber) who discovered mechanisms to create synthetic fertilizer, weaponized chlorine gas and Zyklon. The sisters' family shame has bred a legacy of suicide, and the novel is conceived as both their memoir and group suicide note, a tome that details a doomed family cursed through a fourth generation for its patriarch's sins.
Despite its heavy subject matter, "Reunion" is peppered with the sisters' wit. "Q: How do three sisters write a single suicide note? A: The same way a porcupine makes love: carefully." Lady, Vee and Delph spin tales of their doomed ancestry, lament their lost loves, illnesses and strange upbringing, and place themselves in poorly conceived situations that mostly spin out of control. Mitchell's prose flows easily from pre-World War II Germany to Y2K New York.
"A Reunion of Ghosts" balances gallows humor with the seriousness of the sisters' history and is a memorable and meticulous exploration of personal responsibility and borrowed guilt.
A Reunion of Ghosts
Judith Claire Mitchell
Harper: 400 pp., $26.99
Partington is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif.