Marcus Sedgwick is no stranger to the CLIP Carnegie shortlist, having made shortlist no less than five times since 2002, a testament to the quality of his wordsmithery and storytelling. Having not delved into a Sedgwick novel before I was therefore expecting something spectacular, and I wasn’t disappointed.
‘The Ghosts of Heaven’ is intellectual and thought provoking not only with its content and messages, but also with its format, creating a new reading experience. Most books are read from cover to cover, starting at the beginning and going until the words run out. But with ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’, Marcus has created a story told in four parts, four standalone yet interconnected stories that can be read in any order.
“There are four quarters of this story; they can be read in any order and the story will work. The four quarters are assembled here in just one of twenty-four possible combinations; this order makes one kind of sense, but the reader should feel free to choose a different order, and a different sense, if desired.”
Now, I’m not a quick reader, I can’t scan read, or read a sentence at a time. I’m the kind of reader that painstakingly reads word by word (sometimes syllable by syllable), plodding away through a novel. So the notion of reading out of order did perturb me, but not to be out done, I started with the first part, then gained confidence and read part four followed by part two, finishing with part three. There was something quite liberating about reading out-of-order, igniting a rebellious streak which made for an interesting reading experience.
As the front cover design would suggest, with its spiral staircase ascending towards the heavens, ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’, is about spirals, the infinite shape that can twirl and twist around endlessly. A shape which is synonymous with existence, found in everything from molecules, architecture and plants. The novel starts with the definitions of the Spiral and the Helix, an introduction about the origins of the universe and the spiral form. Each of the books four parts spans a different era, and depending on the order in which you read the parts, a surmise a subtly different story. Ideally you need twenty four reviews, one for each combination, but I will offer you my review based on my reading in the order of parts 1, 4, 2 then 3.
Part One, is story told with short sentences and few words, following the trials of a young tribal girl, in what seems like a pre-historic era, who is fascinated by spirals that she sees in nature and by the drawing shapes in the sand. The girl see’s that the shapes she makes in the sand or paints in charcoal on stone have possibilities for wider communication, not exclusively to be performed by one for the purposes of creating magic upon which the whole tribe’s fate depends. The girls fate and that of her tribe hangs in the balance as the elder who performs the ritual of painting on the walls of the sacred cave is killed by a beast, and she must complete the ritual herself.
“The falcon, the ferns, the shell.
They are all trying to tell her something, but she does not know what it is.
She cannot not know what it is. Not yet.”
Part Four, takes on a science fiction stance as you follow the journey of Bowman, a sentinel travelling across space in charge of five hundred specially picked people in longsleep towards a new planet with the purpose of starting a colony. Bowman, is woken for one day every ten years to monitor and maintain ‘The Song of Destiny’ but discovers that someone is stalking the ship, murdering the cargo. In his infrequent days wake, Bowman tries to crack the mystery only to become caught in a spiral of his suspicion and his inner thoughts, tainted by the book of poetry he brought on the voyage and the number pi. When Bowman discovers the truth he is faced with a decision, one which affects all the cargo, and his sanity.
“he will take the Song of Destiny to the source of the spiral, and confront whatever lies waiting for him there; be it nothing, or ghosts, or God.”
Part Two, is the dark and forlorn tale of a town that is torn apart by suspicion, jealousy and fear when Farther Escrove, the hateful Rural Dene, comes to tend the congregation. Offended by the less than Christian traditions of the community, and their scared spiral, he wastes no time in finding a ‘cunning woman’ to dangle from a rope to serve as an example to the village folk. The story is one of betrayal and brutality as the villagers one by one seal the fate of the young girl, unware that their actions and hand in her death marks seals their own demise.
“She saw the rope around her neck, and its short journey to the branch. She noted how it twisted, round and round, that same shape.”
Part Three, delves into the dark world of Orient Point psychiatric home on Long Island, where Doctor James is the newly appointed Assistant Superintendent, a live in position where he resides with his young daughter Verity on the airy highest floor at the top of an ornate sweeping spiral staircase. The era appears to be early 20th century, where the term Lunatic is frowned upon but still widely used, and the method of helping the afflicted still hinging on the barbaric with the hope of a cure. Dr James soon realises that the Superintendent DR Philips has antiquated and dogmatic views on treatments, and that the institution is rife with abuse. As Dr James tries to make his, mark, he becomes intrigued by the apparent (relative) sanity of patient Dexter, a poet whose insight into life and Dr James’s own demons is remarkably accurate. Dr James becomes concerned for Dexter’s safety as Dr Phillips treatment plans escalate to gambling with the poet’s life, he begins to look more deeply as Dexter’s psychosis, a fear of spirals, so crippling that he can’t even set foot on the staircase. As Dr James tries to assist Dexter in battling his inner fears, he’s sinking in his own, and his relationship with his young daughter Verity is suffers, and she retreats into a book which chronicles the witch trials. When deception sets Dexter on a murderous path, Dr James must learn from the poets lessons how to quieten his own demons.
From the ground, all the way up to the seventh, is a giant curved stairwell… a vast open cylinder, with a staircase that winds up and up, each elegant turn bringing you to the floor above.’
In addition to the tales that all linking together in a subtle nod to the notion that every event in time and space is contacted, the book has also a hidden code. Whilst reading I noticed that the chapter numbers were not numbered in usual consecutive manor, and I had a fleeting thought that perhaps it was a code, but being un-mathematical I promptly forgot all about it. However someone much more mathematically minded was inspired enough to tackle it, and even break it. To find out more Press Here.
All in all, ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’, is an engaging and intelligent novel which is multi-faceted; bringing with it hidden meanings and coded messages along with challenging the notion the reading experience itself. ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’ his sixth Carnegie shortlisted book, could very well be the one that takes home the medal.