Subtle writing keeps tales from spiralling out of control [Review]

Subtle writing keeps tales from spiralling out of control [Review]

The Ghosts of Heaven
By Marvus Sedgwick
Published by Orien
ISBN 978 1 78062 192 2

Sometimes a writer takes such a huge leap of imagination that the reader is left simply reeling. The Ghosts of Heaven, Marcus Sedgwick's new novel which is already shortlisted for a handful of book prizes, is a truly impressive work of youth fiction. In fact, it is four impressive feats of imagination all rolled into one title.

In the introduction, Sedgwick says that his four stories can be read in any order and they will still be connected. This gives 24 different combinations; but we'd recommend first reading in chronological order.

Fans know that Sedgwick is a subtle and effective writer, and the connections between these stories, which play out in different eras, aren't always obvious. The main link is the recurring image of the spiral.

This is one of the most intriguing and satisfying flights of youth fiction, possibly ever. The first section, written in blank verse, is set in prehistoric times. A girl is separated from her tribe and discovers that a rival tribe is preparing to attack, she has no way to send a warning. In a cave, the girl observes the spiral of snail shells and fern fronds. Can these shapes be used to pass on a message?

Centuries later, a fiercely religious priest takes it upon himself to purge a village of its godless ways. He accuses Anna, the daughter of a healer, of witchcraft and hounds her until all the villagers have turned against her. But when Anna sees spiral shapes on a rock face, she believes they have magical powers. But are they good or evil?

In 1920s North America, an idealistic doctor takes a job in an asylum for the insane. This is one of the creepiest tales this side of Edgar Alan Poe. The asylum is a seven-storey affair with a massive spiral staircase. Dexter, once a respected poet, is now an inmate. He has an inexplicable fear of spirals, and when the doctro tries to get to the bottom of his fear, a terror is released that destroys the asylum.

The fourth tale is the story of an astronaut travelling from Earth in search of a new home for humans, who have overpopulated their planet. On board the ship are 500 people who will set up a new human colony. But when the astronaut discovers that one by one they are being murdered, who can he turn to for help?

The Ghosts of Heaven is a challenging and fluently written novel for older teens. It throws up almost as many questions as it provides answers. But then, that is perhaps what an outstanding work of fiction should do.

John Millen can be contacted on

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Subtle writing keeps tales from spiralling out of control


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