Katrina Monroe and the Dark Side of Fiction
Katrina Monroe is an author, mother, and professional haterologist. Her favorite things to hate include socks that fall down, grape-flavored anything, and the color 'salmon.' Grab her books here.
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From the cover:
Timeless, beautiful, and haunting, spirals connect the four episodes of The Ghosts of Heaven, the mesmerizing new novel from Printz Award winner Marcus Sedgwick. They are there in prehistory, when a girl picks up a charred stick and makes the first written signs; there tens of centuries later, hiding in the treacherous waters of Golden Beck that take Anna, who people call a witch; there in the halls of a Long Island hospital at the beginning of the 20th century, where a mad poet watches the oceans and knows the horrors it hides; and there in the far future, as an astronaut faces his destiny on the first spaceship sent from earth to colonize another world. Each of the characters in these mysterious linked stories embarks on a journey of discovery and survival; carried forward through the spiral of time, none will return to the same place
I read the introduction quite by accident (I have a habit of skipping them in the same way I groan at prologues) but was very pleased to see the author issue a challenge. “There are four quarters to this story; they can be read in any order and the story will work…but the reader should feel free to choose a different order, and a different sense, if desired.”
Challenge accepted, Mr. Sedgwick. [Read to the end to see my results.]
The author makes a bold move in beginning his original order with a story told in poetic format, all broken sentences and lyrical prose split down the page. Most readers of prose aren’t necessarily readers of poetry and could be put off by the abrupt toss into it. But the longer I read, the easier it was to fall into the natural voice and cadence of the first quarter’s narrative.
The Best of it:
Even when the subsequent quarters abandon the poetic format, the narrative retains the lyrical feel to the language, which sweeps the reader along the delicate curve of its thematic shape. Most impressively is the author’s ability to convey character with little to no detail. For example, in the second quarter, “The winter wind made it hard for anything to hold, but now, in the summer, the minister felt pressed closer to the sun, and he sat back in his seat, hating.”
The Worst of it:
In comparison to the other quarters, the second doesn’t have much in the way of resolution. Also, the main character’s desire for knowledge of the spiral (which is the major theme binding the four quarters in the first place) is overshadowed by other characters, specifically, the woman set out to do the most harm against the main character.
Yeah, But What if it Were a Movie?
Rather than cast the characters in one cinematic sweep, I’ve elected to give my interpretation of how the different quarters would be presented on screen. The first quarter, WHISPERS IN THE DARK, with its vivid scenery and languid movements I see as a stop-motion or shadow animation film. THE WITCH IN THE WATER would read the same with or without the dialogue, as it is no different than any other witch-trials novel or film come before it and, therefore, would come across most powerfully as a silent film. I don’t know of anything more sinister than a silent scream. Whatever is done with THE EASIEST ROOM IN HELL, it needs to be directed by Alfonso Cuaron. The man knows darkness and hopelessness—two things of abundance in the third quarter. Finally, THE SONG OF DESTINY is a straight-up thriller that is best described as a mash-up between Gravity (starring Sandra Bullock) and Inception (starring Leonardo DiCaprio). The film would play out similarly to these two.
There are so many different ways to tell a story and Sedgwick seems to refuse to choose one. Honestly, I don’t know that his tying theme would have come across as powerfully if he hadn’t broken the quarters apart by style and format in this way. Presented with this seemingly simple object—a spiral—and forced to view it through the lenses of death, anger, fear, acceptance, and small glimmers of joy, the reader’s depth of understanding of the theme is widened immensely.
Beginning with the author’s challenge, I read through the book the way it was presented, and then mentally mixed the quarters in several different ways that I felt could deliver as powerful a message as the original. Despite the author’s claim, it doesn’t work. Yes, the story as a whole still flows with a certain congruity, but only because the quarters are so loosely connected in the first place. My suggestion is to read it from beginning to end and then allow it to swallow you. There are many novels that stick with a person once the book is closed, but even those only recall characters and particularly powerful lines.
In its own dark, death-ridden way, THE GHOSTS OF HEAVEN will encourage you to take a closer look at the world around you and see if you can discover your own meaning in it.