Reviewed by Annabel
Marcus Sedgwick is one of my favourite authors, one of the few whose new YA and adult novels I will buy automatically. He has won several prizes for his fiction and been shortlisted for many more, but so far the the big ones for children’s fiction have eluded him – his time will come, I’m sure. The Ghosts of Heaven is, nominally, a YA novel but it truly deserves a much wider readership and if you read on, I hope to demonstrate why, for the territory between books for teens and adults is becoming distinctly blurred. I should add that I am in my fifties, and I love reading the kinds of YA crossover novels that make me think – this is definitely one of them.
It starts with a spiral. Even before we get into the novel proper, Sedgwick introduces us to the definition of a spiral, and the helix which is one particular form of spiral. In the introduction he lyrically explains about the formation of the solar system, evolution, and how we’re all spinning, spiraling in space. Finally, before the story starts, he suggests that the four parts of the novel can be read in any order, and that changing the order may change the sense for the reader. Whilst I agree in hindsight that reading the sections back to front say would give a different perspective, equivalent to spiraling in rather than spiraling out – I chose to stick with the published order – and am glad I did so, as for me this saved the best until last! The four sections are in essence four novellas, each of around one hundred pages, that together make a linked story cycle, each resonating through the others. We start in the Stone Age with a young girl who has been picked to accompany a cave painter on his journey to a sacred site. When I turned the page to begin reading this section, I was immediately surprised! Sedgwick has written the first part as a prose poem…
…she’s thinking about something else. Three things: the fronds of ferns, the shell of the snail, and then, a falcon. She saw the bird on the walk before the waterfall. Saw it stooping from the sky Saw how it dropped, not in a line, but in the shape of the shell, the form of the fern-tip, Round and down, round and down, far below to the ground. The falcon, the ferns, the shell. They are all trying to tell her something, but she does not know what it is. She cannot know what it is. Not yet.
Little does the girl know that she will become the witness to violence, and through it the maker of signs that will help man to continue evolving. It’s a bold opening. For the rest of the novel, we return to a conventional narrative style, and in the second section we move forwards into medieval times. Father Escrove is on his way to a godless village, a temporary replacement for the priest who died some time ago.
Sliding satisfied into his thoughts were memories of his work; his calling. Images of unrepentant sinners; some faces he could remember, others, he could not, but that mattered little. What mattered were the numbers of those who he had brought to some kind of redemption at the end of a good length of twisted English rope.
His arrival coincides with the funeral of Joan, a herbalist. Her daughter Anna has learned much from her, but she is unsure whether to take on her mantle. Seeing the rather Pagan ceremony, Escrove’s mind is already made up – she’s a witch. He plans to catch her out. Again symbols, both natural and man-made, play their part in this bold story as Anna’s fate spirals out of control. In the third part, we cross the Atlantic, to a lunatic asylum on the New England seaboard, where an idealistic and widowed doctor has just arrived from England with his daughter. The doctor narrates how he starts his new job and gets to know the workings and patients in this huge building, which has a central staircase that spirals up to a scenic cupola. It’s not long before he makes the acquaintance of Charles Dexter – whom the director, Dr Philips, says is the most dangerous man in the place. To the narrator, Dexter, a poet obsessed by the moon and sea, is obviously suffering from manic depression.
…here we are in this insane asylum, with the sea all around, and everyone and everything controlled by the pull of the moon. And down in that sea, Doctor, are dead things. Your wife is among them…
The two men bond but Philips’ Mengele-like plans for Dexter’s treatment will cause a huge crisis for both. We reach the fourth final part of the narrative – and halfway down the first page it becomes clear that we are now in a SF setting and a big grin of realisation spread over my face as I ‘got’ the act of homage that this section is. I won’t explicitly say any more on this than the book’s blurb gives. Mankind must reach into space to find somewhere else to live, for Earth is full. Keir Bowman is one of the team of sentinels on the spaceship Song of Destiny, one of a fleet transporting enough people in deep sleep to start a new colony on the nearest Earth-like planet. The sentinels are woken up in turn every decade to check that the ships’ systems are still working. Bowman is Sentinel Six, and this time when he wakes up, he finds several pods have malfunctioned and their occupants are dead… I cannot say any more. Spirals and helixes do indeed run rampant through the DNA of this fine and multi-layered novel. The gimmick of reading the sections in any order you please aside, I absolutely loved it (and its gorgeous turquoise page edges) – I have no hesitation in recommending it to all.
Marcus Sedgwick, The Ghosts of Heaven (Indigo, London, 2014) ISBN 978-1780621982, hardback, 448 pages.
BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback, via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)