With the winners announcement imminent, our reviews of the Carnegie shortlist 2016 conclude with Marcus Sedgwick’s The Ghosts of Heaven…
The Ghosts of Heaven is a novel made up of four quarters. We are told at the beginning that they can be read in any order so, when I first picked up the book, determined not to be the boring one, I turned initially to quarter three. However, my inner voice kept protesting. “This is wrong!” it shouted. “You don’t read a book like this!” It was so distracting that I had to admit defeat and start again, beginning with quarter one. It turns out there are quite a few of us “boring ones” out there in the world, because everyone else I have spoken to who’s read this book has told me they also read it in the usual numerical order (if anybody has been daring enough to try a different sequence, please do let me know! I’d be really interested to hear of any differences in how the book is perceived if read in a different order).
Each of the four quarters tells a story from a different point in time. Quarter One, written in pulsing, pounding verse takes us back to pre-history, with tribal ritual, death and cave-art all featuring heavily. The rest of the novel is written in prose – Quarter Two tells the story of Anna Tunstall, a young woman condemned as part of the seventeenth-century witch trials; in Quarter Three a doctor just starting in a new job at a ‘lunatic asylum’ uncovers some dark truths; and in Quarter Four, set in the far future, a sentinel on board a ship carrying 500 people towards a “New Earth” discovers six of the inhabitants are dead. He is meant to be the only one awake but it seems that’s not the case…
Four quarters, four individual stories, all linked. The spiral motif that runs throughout the book is intriguing and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it (and still can’t).
This is a striking and startlingly original read. It’s challenging and ambitious, in form, style and content. Each of the stories is beautifully told, with characters and settings that draw you in and leave you with as many questions as answers. The second and third quarters were my own personal favourites and left me desperate to know more.
I cannot claim to fully understand this book. I don’t. I don’t think I’m meant to. I don’t think it matters. What matters is that this is a novel that challenges and stretches and makes the reader think, search for connections and ask questions. It’s brilliantly put together and, although I’m not a re-reader in general, I can see myself going back to this again and again.