It feels almost impossible to cast a light on this book, as to read it is to be lost, slightly, in its woozy, intoxicating layers. It sizzles with the desire and delirium of the desert heat; dizzying, static and hypnotic - and it gets inside your head.
The book centres around Sophia and Rose Papastergiadis; a mother and daughter temporarily living in Almería, southern Spain, while they seek treatment for a mysterious medical condition that leaves Rose largely confined to a wheelchair. Sophia, meanwhile, struggles to see past her chained-animal existence to her shattered dreams of a “bigger life.”
It’s a strange kind of escapism when the story-world you’re ‘escaping’ into is one where everyone else wants to get out, but this story gets under your skin like prickly heat. The power of the central relationship creeps up on you slowly, its nuances buried beneath the bigger, more demanding alliances that distract the lead character, Sophia. Their mother/daughter narrative is subtly, slowly heartbreaking, in the way so many complicated family relationships are.
But it’s the atmosphere that stays with you; blistering and claustrophobic. At the end you may, like Rose, need a cold, fresh, glass of water to clear your head and shake the monsters free, and just hope it isn’t the “wrong sort of water.”
Published: 24th March 2016, Hamish Hamilton
Physically unattractive (self-professed,) and depressed to the point of suicide; only faced with these three main characters did it strike me how uncommon that is in literature. Sure, we’re used to the predictably good-looking leads in movies, but in books - the least visual of all mediums - most protagonists seem either explicitly nice-looking or can at least be interpreted so. I’m sure, too, that leads very rarely seem to start out beyond hope.
I was a little shocked and disappointed in myself to actually find it a bit of a barrier in A Reunion Of Ghosts.
It didn’t help that I came accross the book following a “If you like Nicole Krauss, you’ll love…” type recommendation. But while I find Nicole Krauss lilting and lyrical, this, in contrast, was brazen and brash; in fact the only similarity seemed to be its focus on Jewish history, making the comparison even more superficial and annoying.
But, for all its brash-ness, A Reunion of Ghosts is also fresh and fascinating. The unattractive, suicidal sisters who lead the story are fresh and fascinating, and so it the family history they tell within the book. It’s credit to their charm and humour that you’re won over to them over the course of the book, but it’s also thanks to the story they tell.
The book charts the personal, emotional fall-out of a Jewish-German scientist’s invention; first of chlorine gas - the chemical weapon used in WW1, then Zyklon - a gas later used in the Holocaust, showing the ripples of guilt the devastating consequences of his inventions sent down through generations.
Based loosely on a real family, the story is big, bold and shocking enough to carry you through the sisters’ subtler journey, and by the end you’ll be glad it did - as their tale and their relationships turn out to be just as powerful as those of the world changing ancestors they’re obsessed with.
Published: January 2016, 4th Estate