Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick

Four interconnected stories, centuries apart, that can be read in any order. But it's hard to break the habit of a lifetime, so I read them in order.

The first quarter features a nameless, almost language-less girl from about 40,000 years ago. The story concerns a hunt and the ritual magics that must be performed by The One Who Goes To The Cave to ensure that the hunt goes well- magics that include painting on the walls of caves- buffalo, spear-bearing hunters, uniquely marked handprints to claim your magic. Written in a beautiful, ethereal verse (because language is still rudimentary to the characters, the jagged, halting pace of verse suits well) we see the Girl miss out on her destiny but try to fulfil it anyway, in a somewhat unofficial capacity with tragic consequences. The life of an individual in 40,000 BC is short- the Girl does not fear death. What is perhaps more affecting is the death of her potential legacy. In her last moments the girl thinks up the idea of writing, but takes her invention with her to the darkness. How different could history have been if she had lived? If the written word was conceived so early in human history, where would we be now? It's questions like this, ostensibly simple but actually mind-rending questions that set Sedgwick's writing apart from his peers. He's able to pinpoint the exact moments and locations that underpin humanity, the foundations of history and just give them a little shake. The last time a book made me feel so impotent against the path of fate and time was Midwinterblood, his should-totally-have-won Shortlisted title from 2013.

The first quarter introduces us to the recurring, essential theme of the spiral. In the fronds of a fern, the coil of a snail shell. The spiral is infinite and continues its ceaseless turns- changing, closing, but never stopping. Over the next thee quarters we see the spiral occur in the 1630s when a beautiful, spiral haired woman is accused of witchcraft, in an apparently progressive 1920s Long Island asylum and eventually in the far future, in the final quarter about a man travelling through space to find the New Earth on a ship called the Song of Destiny. I loved how the new doctor's daughter discovered an account of Anna's witch trial in a book in the asylum library and I especially loved the final quarter. It reminded me partially of David Jones' brilliant film Moon and a bit of Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem,- a claustrophobic science fiction nightmare of lies, discoveries and horror that demonstrates the dangerous isolation of space and asks whether such exploration is essential or essentially pointless.

The quarters aren't long and complicated, but each one is filled with questions, realisations, unbearable tensions and sad inevitabilities. The characters are brief flashes in time, but they are solid and memorable- the lunatic patent Dexter who is terrified of the spiral, the mercenary Father Escrove who vows to purify Godless villages by scapegoating the innocent. Each story is engrossing and so ridiculously vivid, but together they make up a whole that is simply incredible- a bitesize summary of our species' need to either fear or to conquer the unknown.

So much of this book feels so primal, like the reader carries memories of the long-dead (or far away) characters in their unconscious. The cave paintings, the madness, the capacity for violence, the helplessness- it makes you realise that for all our supposed sophistication and progress there's only a couple of lucky flukes separating us from apes, or from extinction. Sedgwick is able to cast an eye over the whole of human experience, sift away most of it, and thread together the parts that seem so fundamentally essential; the need for legacy, exploration, our talent for persecution, the double edged sword of knowledge, the idea that any individual that has ever existed. The idea of the spiral being the core of the Universe is so compelling and seems so reasonable. I don't want to sound melodramatic but this book feels like an epiphany. I got chills, seeing the bigger picture emerge.

I loved it. In my humble opinion, it's an utterly flawless novel. To jump from one setting, one voice, one time to another so fluidly is impressive, to do this whilst subtly lining up the themes of all the quarters, slowly building up to almost an equinox of discovery and revelations. It defies genres, it defies conventions, it's insanely ambitious and it takes no prisoners when it comes to keeping up with what's going on. Incredible.

This is my winner. I am formally and officially nailing my colours to the mast, and those colours are Marcus Sedgwick colours. The Leonardo di Caprio of the Carnegie- this is the 6th time around on the Carnegie Shortlist, I hope 2016 is the year that it happens.

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