A spiralling journey to the edge of consciousness – and beyond?
Carnegie Medal shortlist 2016 – Review 1 of 8
I had never heard of Marcus Sedgwick until I looked up the Carnegie Medal shortlist earlier this month. I was slightly put off by the title, fearing I’d be in for a religious read. But the title is misleading if that is what you’re after. Instead, I was taken through time in an exploration of human life and consciousness, ranging from the enlightened epiphany to the despairing depths of madness.
A spiral of a book
The first thing you notice about this book is its structure: it is a collection of four connected stories, “quarters”, and each quarter of the book can be read first, or last, or second or third according to the author in his introduction. The structure is part of the book’s theme of spiralling movement, constantly moving like the journey up (or down) a spiral, a recurring symbol in each quarter. The published version arranges the quarters chronologically from a prehistoric setting, through to the early eighteenth and twentieth centuries, and then on hundreds of years into the future and trillions of miles from Earth.
Split but linked narratives
The quarters themselves read fantastically on their own. I was hooked by the tension that is steadily developed over the course of each one, a tension you carry over with you as you move on to the next. Sedgwick successfully creates a sense of foreboding. As a science fiction fan, I personally enjoyed the final quarter the most but each one successfully draws the reader into the intrigue. In each one, we are taken right up to the edge of that thing the spiral symbolises, the eternity that humans minds contain but which is also unknowable to them. The beauty of Sedgwick’s writing is in drawing out that feeling of being close to a threshold, of almost crossing a boundary but never taking us across (taking us across would, of course, be impossible).
Sedgwick exploits the individual theme of each quarter masterfully. As early humans founded civilisations, so discovery is the theme of the first quarter, Whispers in the Dark. The Witch in the Water plays on innocence and obsession during a witchcraft trial. The Easiest Room in Hell, set in an asylum, leaves the reader questioning the notion of sanity and the limits of the human mind, disturbed by the idea that the mind can be swallowed by the void within itself. Sentinel Bowman’s voyage as a space explorer in The Song of Destiny, heading into vast unknown territory on what is likely to be a doomed mission, is perhaps the most explicit metaphor for expanding the boundaries of the mind and crossing over the threshold into the unknown.
I also enjoyed the way the writing style varies from quarter to quarter: the rhythmic oral-tale style in Whispers in the Dark fits the pre-written history setting; the epistolary diary entries in The Easiest Room in Hell are a neat way of allowing glimpses into Dr James’s thought processes, and allow us to question his version of the events and so question his own sanity. Sedgwick writes with ease about violence and death, which juxtaposes a very human cruelty with the matterless oblivion beyond. Indeed, death features largely in each quarter, explicitly and also as an implied path to revelation, representing one way of reaching the unknown.
But what does it all mean?
The key to understanding The Ghosts of Heaven is in the spirals that manifest themselves throughout the quarters. The book itself is a spiral, with neither beginning nor end. At first I wasn’t convinced that the quarters really could be slotted into any of the twenty four combinations that the author claims and still effectively communicate that feeling of a journey that the chronologically published version provides. But, trapped without wifi to download my next Carnegie Medal shortlister, I decided to try rereading the book, starting in the middle. And it works, in a way. Each reference from one quarter to the next naturally becomes a source when read first, linking the stories smoothly.
However, I felt like quarter four, The Song of Destiny, spoils this effect. Bowman’s choice to break out of the temporal cycle that his ghostly selves are trapped in is the first example of a character actually acting on these mysterious pulsions, actively attempting to pursue them and go on up the spiral, while the other characters, victims of their circumstance, are unable to do so. The return to prehistory and the lyrical form at the end of the quarter, followed by the mysterious lines of cypher, is a break with the others and to me signified the next round of the spiral, outside the very human realms of the previous three settings. But perhaps the key to understanding is in the code, which I admit I didn’t attempt to decipher.
The other point I can’t help noting is that the spiral motif is extremely reminiscent of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which uses a similar tool to vehicle its sense of repeated and evolving histories, each similar to but different from the last (though Cloud Atlas communicates a different message). However, this does not mean the books are similar in other respects, as I found them to have totally different intentions. Cloud Atlas has a more social aspect to it while The Ghosts of Heaven is much more introspective and structured differently.
I also found the implication that each quarter is the same, interchangeable pieces on the loop of a neverending spiral, a bit bleak. Does that mean we are going in circles? If I reach another part of the spiral, does that leave me with infinite other loops to aim for at the risk of sliding back down? Is that inspiring or depressing? Though this linearity may be accurate in the sense of progressing towards a post-human epiphany or regressing to an animal-like state, it’s part of my nature to feel there is value in straying from the path, in refusing to play by the rules. I felt like Sedgwick was giving me the choice to go up or to go down, but what if I’d like to try sideways?
The Ghosts of Heaven is an exceedingly interesting book, though not for the conceptually faint-hearted. It is as complex as you make it, giving the reader the power to be woven into the fabric of Sedgwick’s spirals. The risk is that just as many readers might find themselves slipping down as gliding up.