Carnegie 2016: Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

It’s something of a cliché to start a review like this, but among writers of fiction for children and “young adults”, Marcus Sedgwick is genuinely unique. His cold, oddly distant tone gave his early novels a distinctive feel even as they used essentially familiar story-structures, but his recent work has moved even further away from convention, embracing the kind of abstract, non-linear styles that are rarely found in fiction aimed at a younger audience.

Ghosts Of Heaven is similar to his own Midwinterblood in structure, being composed of distinct stories linked by a single theme, but the connection here is looser and more deliberately abstract. A short, non-fiction introduction in Sedgwick’s own voice gives a brief explanation of the events following the big-bang, describing the formation of our solar system as describing a spiral pattern. Sedgwick then introduces four short stories linked by the spiral theme, explaining that they can be read in any combination in order to create different effects.

The stories themselves cover different times and themes, and are as confident and engagingly awkward as we’ve come to expect from Sedgewick. A narrative poem about a young girl from a pre-historic tribe making a discovery with profound future implications; another girl much later is accused of witchcraft by a village who fears and envies her; a psychiatrist starts a new job in a very unusual hospital in the early twentieth century; much later, the only conscious passenger on a faster-than-light colony ship carries out the slowest murder investigation in history. As with Midwinter Blood, recurring themes link the stories, but whereas in the earlier book a large number of themes are used to array a mostly linear narrative, here things are more abstract – the symbolism is pared down to mostly just the constantly-repeating motif of the spiral, a pattern mirrored in the lack of straight narrative story.

The techniques Sedgewick uses here will be familiar to readers of less narrativist fiction, but are still quite unusual within the “young adult” market – the closest points of comparison being Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Alan Moore’s notoriously reader-unfriendly Voice Of The Fire, hardly references one normally comes across in fiction aimed at younger readers. Within the stories themselves there are some surprises too – the pure science fiction of the final story is unlike anything Sedgewick has put his name to previously, while the psychiatrist’s tale gets closer to capturing the genuine spirit of HP Lovecraft than most “adult” horror fiction with that intent manages. It’s not surprising that the weakest individual story – that of the witch – is also the most conventional and familiar, though its recurrence in the other stories goes some way to redeeming that.

The unorthodox structure of Ghosts Of Heaven will no doubt put off some younger readers, and some of those who stick with it will be frustrated by the lack of clear narrative or fixed conclusion, but more confident or precocious readers may well find that Sedgwick has given them access to a style of fiction not usually available to younger readers. A genuinely distinctive release from an author who continues to be one of the most interesting in his field’.

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