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Titles similar to The Ghosts of Heaven
Sedgwick is one of the most sophisticated, thought-provoking voices in YA novels, and like his Printz-winning Midwinterblood (2013), this presents a story told in pieces over a span of centuries. The four narratives here, which can be read in any order, are linked by the omnipresent spiral, which appears in art as a universally aesthetically pleasing form, in naturally occurring shapes, in mathematics, in astronomy, right down to our very DNA. What does it all mean? Maybe everything, maybe nothing—Sedgwick never seems to pick one, but that oscillation only adds to the haunting atmosphere.
In the first section, a free-verse poem of dense syllables and vivid images, a prehistoric tribe lacking written language embarks on a ritual of the hunt, climbing into a mountain cave to conjure the magic that will protect them and call up the beasts that will feed them for a season. After disaster strikes, one young woman is the only one left to make the necessary ritualistic marks—handprints on a wall in red ochre, each labeled with the unique symbol of its creator. Meanwhile, another tribe, ruthless and bloodthirsty, attacks her people. Is her untrained magic to blame? As she finds herself sitting alone in the cave in darkness, she contemplates the profound signifying power of the spiraling shapes she sees not only on the walls before her flame goes out but also in front of her eyes, a result of her brain generating visual signals in the pitch black.
Spirals retain their magical powers in the second story, but that magic becomes increasingly dangerous. Anna, the daughter of the local cunning woman, took over her late mother’s folk-healing practices, many of which involve spirals. But when a draconian priest arrives in their seventeenth-century English village, rumors quickly circulate that Anna is a witch. Her brother’s epilepsy doesn’t help matters, nor do the oddly mesmerizing charcoal spirals that show up around the village, and despite protestations from Anna’s friends, the hysteria spins wildly out of control.
Sedgwick offers a lightly Lovecraftian story in his third section, set in an innovative nineteenth-century mental asylum with a spiral staircase at the heart of the building. One patient there, Charles Dexter, seems outwardly sane, but when confronted with spirals, he becomes paralyzed by fear. Dr. James, the beneficent new assistant superintendent of the hospital, tries to rehabilitate Dexter, but the sadistic head of the asylum thwarts him at every turn. It is Dexter’s fear, however, that is the true centerpiece of this story—for him, the spiral represents the terror of infinity, the slow, inevitable slide into oblivion.
That terror arrives at its powerful height in the final quarter, set in the future on a ring-shaped ship en route to a new earth. Keir Bowman is a sentinel on the century-long journey, waking for 12 hours every 10 years to monitor the ship’s progress and life-support systems. But when, over the course of 40 years, he discovers that not only is someone killing off the passengers destined to populate the new earth but also that intelligent life somewhere nearby is emitting a signal (tied directly to the ratio demonstrating the spiral), he unspools a sinister truth about his role in the expedition and the future of humanity.
Each story is linked only tenuously, emitting mere echoes in the others, but those tenuous links leave ominous gaps that are heavy with significance. The aesthetic beauty of the spiral is pivotal, to be sure, but as Sedgwick notes the ubiquity of the shape—as a powerful sign, a healing comfort, a menacing horror, a frightening message—he also imparts its beauty and power with a growing sense of awesome terror, as if the more we contemplate the beautiful, infinite spiral, the harder it is to bear. This is profoundly heady stuff, and Sedgwick twines the threads together effortlessly in sparely written, gorgeous lines that tug at something deeper than heartstrings. It’s a graceful exploration of a sometimes comforting, sometimes distressing mystery of the universe, and the unsettling combination of meaning and emptiness will linger long after the last page.
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