These Ghosts Are Family by Maisie Card

This was a fascinating journey. These Ghosts Are Family follows a family for generations, from slavery in Jamaica, through emancipation and decades of struggle with old class systems, immigration to London and New York, through permutations of relations, including a fresh start with a new identity (or, if you like, identity theft). The timeline jumps around and the focus and point of view shift, so that readers see this extended family at different times and from different perspectives. Issues of class, race and colorism and the relationships between privileged and less privileged classes, including but not limited to enslavement, will be obvious themes; we know that rape and issues of gender arise under these conditions too. The characters are infinitely fascinating. I was not so much expecting the question of supernatural elements: duppies or ghosts and Ol’ Hige, “a Caribbean version of a vampire story.” By the book’s end, I was left reeling with all the possibilities. There is plenty of heaviness: children abused, spouses failing to see eye to eye, parents and children letting each other down. But there are some quietly loving relationships scattered throughout. As I close the final pages, I’m a bit at a loss because there’s so much to consider. (And because we ended with a decidedly weird trio of spooky vampire children living in the woods.)

The book begins with a family tree, which I did refer to throughout. It presented me with a confusion that was answered on the first page. I’m going to spoil that one here because, again, first page of the novel (and it’s also given away on the back of the book and in most blurbs): the aged Stanford Solomon reveals, on his deathbed, that in fact he is (or was) also Abel Paisley, presumed dead some thirty-five years ago, at which point he took the identity of his friend Stanford. “Stanford” has both a wife and daughter and another daughter out of wedlock, all in New York; Abel left behind a wife and two children in Jamaica when he supposedly died. Stanford/Abel’s revelation obviously affects those around him. But I’m going to diverge from the blurbs here, and say that this is not the event around which the book revolves, and by its end, Stanford is by no means the central character. Rather, he is one branch on the family tree that is the book’s center. He’s just one link, and I don’t think he earns the role the blurb says he plays. Rather, I find the book more about larger patterns – slavery, class and race and colorism following slavery, migration and immigration, gender roles, the persistent damages of all these institutions and systems, trauma, and family dynamics. It’s about the multiple generations of this single family, for sure, but their combined story is very much about those larger patterns and systems. There’s nothing preachy or intentional-feeling about this, but the Paisley/Stanford family is inextricable from larger issues. I put Stanford/Abel at its center only in that he opens the book and occurs at the more-or-less center of the family tree as we find it here. The book ends somewhere very different, and that feels right.

In between, the story is told by numerous voices spanning some 200 years. That multiplicity of voices was a great choice for this story. (I have just said the same about a brilliant novel whose review is still forthcoming: Lookout by Christine Byl.) I love the kaleidoscopic or triangulated perspective on events offered by the different views. And for a novel whose focus is so broad – generations of a family across continents, countries, and centuries – it makes sense to move around like this. I guess such a big story told by one voice (with some kind of time-traveling power, I suppose) would be a different kind of accomplishment, and I can imagine it done beautifully, but Card’s choice feels just perfect here. The multiple voices also allow her to give us different dialects, which add to the texture and richness of the whole.

This adventure into these varied lives is expertly done, not always comfortable because of the subject matter, but engrossing and well worth the immersive experience. Card is a talent.


Rating: 7 names.

One Response

  1. […] a helpful family tree in the front matter, as in These Ghosts are Family (which is one that refers to this book in an interview with the author at the end). This lets […]

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