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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1095

Author: Marcus Sedgwick (b. 1968)

First published: 2014

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy; Science fiction; Historical fiction

Time of plot: The Stone Age, the seventeenth century, the 1920s, and the future

Locales: Stone Age Earth, England, Long Island, outer space

Principal characters

Anna Tunstall , a young...

(The entire section contains 1095 words.)

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Author: Marcus Sedgwick (b. 1968)

First published: 2014

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy; Science fiction; Historical fiction

Time of plot: The Stone Age, the seventeenth century, the 1920s, and the future

Locales: Stone Age Earth, England, Long Island, outer space

Principal characters

Anna Tunstall, a young woman accused of witchcraft

Tom Tunstall, her younger brother

Father Escrove, a clergyman obsessed with executing suspected witches

Robert Hamill, the younger son of the local country squire

Grace Dolen, a woman who accuses Anna of witchcraft

Doctor Perseverance James, the protagonist of "The Easiest Room in Hell" and the new assistant superintendent of the Orient Point Insane Asylum

Verity, his adopted daughter

Charles Dexter, a poet who is a patient in the asylum

Keir Bowman, the protagonist of "The Song of Destiny" and a sentinel aboard the titular spaceship

The Story

Marcus Sedgwick's novel The Ghosts of Heaven is divided into quarters; each is a distinct story that is nevertheless deeply tied to all of the others. Quarter 1, "Whispers in the Dark," is written in the form of a twenty-four-part poem. The poem follows a nameless young woman living in the Stone Age as she goes about daily life in her hunter-gatherer tribe. Observant and curious by nature, she notices recurring spiral shapes in the natural world and is fascinated by the concepts of art and magic, drawing pictures of animals in the sand before she is stopped by her tribe's leader. When the elder responsible for making cave artwork and thus performing the magic necessary to ensure a successful hunt chooses an apprentice, the young woman is disappointed not to have been chosen. Nevertheless, she accompanies the elder and the new apprentice boy to the cave, carrying their supplies. The elder and the apprentice are soon killed by a cave lion, and as the young woman attempts to return to camp, she sees people from another tribe massacring her tribe's hunters. The rest of her tribe is killed as they return to their camp. Observing this, the young woman thinks about the idea of written language, which she realizes could have been used to warn her people. The young woman then goes deep into a cave, where she becomes trapped.From THE GHOSTS OF HEAVEN © 2015 by Marcus Sedgwick. Reprinted by permission of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership. All Rights Reserved.

Quarter 2, "The Witch in the Water," is set in eighteenth-century England. Villager Anna Tunstall's mother, a woman skilled in making herbal remedies, has recently died, leaving Anna responsible for her younger brother, Tom. When clergyman Father Escrove comes to the village, seeking to purge any witches from the region, his attention falls on Anna. He is supported in his crusade by several villagers, including Grace Dolen, a woman whose sickly infant died shortly after birth despite Anna and her mother's attempted interventions. Father Escrove's claim that Anna is a witch is further supported by Robert Hamill, the son of the local nobleman, who claims that Anna bewitched him after she rejected his proposal of marriage. After the villagers' witchcraft test proves inconclusive, Father Escrove puts Anna on trial. In order to further their own agendas or avoid reprisals from Father Escrove, multiple villagers testify against her, and Anna is hanged.

The novel's third segment, "The Easiest Room in Hell," is an epistolary story written in diary entries. Set in Long Island in the late 1920s, the story chronicles the experiences of Dr. Perseverance James, a widower who has just become assistant superintendent of the Orient Point Insane Asylum. While living at the asylum with his adopted daughter, Verity, Dr. James meets a patient named Charles Dexter, a former poet who does not initially exhibit signs of mental illness. He later learns that Dexter is terrified of spirals and seems to have knowledge that he should not possess. Although Dexter ultimately escapes from the asylum during a riot and drowns himself, he leaves Dr. James with a message that helps the doctor let go of his deceased wife and find inner peace.

Quarter 4, "The Song of Destiny," follows Keir Bowman, a man aboard the far-future spaceship of the same name, which is making the century-long journey to a habitable planet where its passengers will establish a new civilization. Bowman is one of ten sentinels tasked with waking from extended sleep for twelve hours every ten years to check on the ship's operations and the state of its hundreds of sleeping passengers. When Bowman awakens, he realizes that several passengers have inexplicably died in their sleeping pods. As he works to discover how they died, he suspects that all is not as it seems. After a journey through a tear in space and a meeting with an alternate version of himself, Bowman lands a shuttle on a planet, where, in a section written as poetry, he encounters a young woman who creates cave artwork.

Critical Evaluation

In his introduction to The Ghosts of Heaven, Sedgwick explains that while the four stories are presented in one specific order in the book, they can in fact be read in any order, in twenty-four different combinations. The published order, he writes, "makes one kind of sense," but each alternate order will make "a different sense" to the reader. Indeed, while the chronological order presented in the book makes for a compelling narrative, the stories are deeply connected, and reading them in different sequences calls further attention to the ways in which they are linked. In addition to connections such as the Stone Age girl's, Anna's, and Dexter's appearances is Bowman's dreams and visions in "The Song of Destiny," the four stories are tied together through their recurring spiral motif. Spirals fascinate the protagonist of "Whispers in the Dark," help lead Anna to her doom in "The Witch in the Water," terrify Dexter in "The Easiest Room in Hell," and prompt Bowman to draw conclusions about the infinite, repeating yet ever-changing patterns of life. Ultimately, the four quarters of The Ghosts of Heaven could be read again and again in an endless spiral that brings new layers of meaning and understanding with each read-through.

Further Information

  • Chilton, Martin. Review of The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick. The Telegraph, 8 Sept. 2014, www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/children_sbookreviews/11081324/The-Ghosts-of-Heaven-by-Marcus-Sedgwick-review.html. Accessed 31 Jan. 2017.
  • Review of The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick. Kirkus, 4 Nov. 2014, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/marcus-sedgwick/the-ghosts-of-heaven. Accessed 31 Jan. 2017.
  • Lacey, Josh. "Ambitious and Frustrating." Review of The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick. The Guardian, 3 Jan. 2015, www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/03/the-ghosts-of-heaven-marcus-sedgwick-review-childrens-teenagers-novel. Accessed 31 Jan. 2017.
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