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Review: The Ghosts of Heaven - Marcus Sedgwick

Genre: YA Fiction Published: Orion Books, October 2014

My Rating: 2/5 stars

“You want to go back to where you began. You want to find the happiness you once had. But you can never get there, because even if you somehow found it, you yourself would be different. You would have changed, from your journey alone, from the passing of time, if nothing else. You can never make it back to where you began, you can only ever climb another turn of the spiral stair. Forever.”

Markus Sedgwick’s 2014 novel The Ghosts of Heaven was pitched to me as “Cloud Atlas for a YA-audience.” As one of the (few) people who actually genuinely enjoyed all things David Mitchel, including Cloud Atlas, I had quite high hopes. Sadly, only very few of these hopes were met. Like Cloud Atlas, The Ghosts of Heaven inhabits that grey area between novel and collection of short stories. The book is divided into 4 sections, that can each be read separately, and in any order you’d like, although the author recommends the order they are presented in. The first part (Whispers in the Dark) is set in prehistorical times, and follows a girl who flees into a mysterious cave system where she essentially invents written language. The second part (The Witch in the Water) follows a young women in the 1600’s, accused of which craft by her village. For the third part (The Easiest Room in Hell) we visit a 1920’s insane asylum, where a doctor takes particular interest in a mysterious madman who serenades the sea. And finally for part 4 (The Song of Destiny), we travel into the future, to a spaceship on its way to colonize new planets. Although these stories are seemingly completely unrelated, they are bound by one motif that returns in all of them: spirals. Spirals are everywhere in this book. From the prehistoric cave paintings, to the mathematical equations that launched a spaceship into deep space. They adorn the cover and the chapter headers. They are also in the structure of the novel itself, in the sense that it comes to sort of a circle in the end, yet doesn’t end up in the exact place it started.

If this all sounds very ambitious and very abstract: you are right. That, unfortunately, was my biggest problem with this novel. As much as I appreciate an ambitious idea, I don’t feel like this book accomplished what it set out to do. From a novel-perspective, the motif of simply “spirals” just isn’t enough to link the stories together to form a coherent whole, especially as they otherwise are completely unrelated in tone or style whatsoever. Even the way the plot spirals around in the end, was just a little thin to me. When I read the backflap, the idea that immediately jumped into my mind as to how the author would accomplish that, was what exactly what happened in the end. You could argue that this is supposed to be judged as a collection of short stories, rather than a novel. From that perspective, perhaps the link between them would have been enough. Still, I felt the 4 stories were a little too underdeveloped to stand as separate entities for me to enjoy it as such. In addition, I think these type of ambitious set ups can easily border on pretentious, if not executed to perfection. Not to short-sell YA-readers, but in general I feel like this audience has less patience and tolerance for this sort of thing, which made me doubt if the book was targeted to the right audience.

To say it bluntly: I think the comparison to Cloud Atlas is fair, yet I personally enjoyed that book a lot more than this one. Both the stories in Cloud Atlas and The Ghosts of Heaven are linked by a motif, and, in the case of Cloud Atlas, thematically. In both, the stories are written in completely different narrative styles and “voices”, which I can only commend both authors for pulling off, as it’s extremely difficult to do.

That being said, Cloud Atlas ultimately kept me thinking long after finishing it, and the more I thought about it, the more connections between the stories I found. Cloud Atlas became more than the sum of its parts. The Ghosts of Heaven sadly didn’t.

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