These Ghosts Are Family
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I love it. On the other hand, it’s verging on just slightly too weird, even for me. Either way, it’s really not what I expected.
These Ghosts Are Family is a time-, country-, and narrator-hopping account of a decision made by a Jamaican man, Stanford Solomon, and the consequences that proceeded from that decision. The most immediate consequence is that Stanford is not Stanford: he is in fact named Abel Paisley, and he has been living a secret second life since he faked his death in 1970. Faking his death was not a part of his original plan, but he took advantage of the accidental squashing of childhood friend Stanford Solomon, whose identity he usurped before fleeing to the States to start a new life. This impulsive theft left his wife Vera alone with two small children, Irene and Vincent, upon whom she vented her rage, grief, and guilt while also carrying on a decades-long affair with a yard boy named Bernard. Meanwhile Abel married another Jamaican woman, Adele, who happened to be in London at the time that he became Stanford, and she persuaded him to move to New York, where they opened a West Indian grocery store and had a daughter, Estelle. He also had an affair with a customer, who gave birth to another daughter, Ruthie, shortly before the birth of Estelle’s daughter, Caren.
Thirty-five years after Abel jettisoned one family for another, Irene is a home health aide with two small children of her own, and few memories of her father. She lives in New York but mildly regrets leaving her mother because she was in the States when Vera died and thus was not able to inherit her house. Estelle is an artist whose heroin addiction has placed Caren under Abel and Adele’s custody. Caren is attending college and sleeping with one of her professors, and Adele is dead. This all adds up to a very precarious balance for the family, which Abel shatters when he announces to Irene, Estelle, and Caren – and to Vera, who is dead but nevertheless present – that he faked his death and is most definitely not who he’s been saying he is. Vera already knew this, being dead, and watches the proceedings with glee, trying to decide which of the other three women she will manipulate into murdering Abel.
After Abel’s announcement, the story completely falls apart, devolving into a set of interconnected short stories. These bounce freely around time and space, touching on everyone affected by Abel’s decision, from his wives to his children to Bernard to the three little girls Bernard stole away into the bush in a moment of vengeance. There’s also a story about Vincent’s wife, Debbie, a white American woman who inherits a journal written by her slave-owning great-great-great-great-grandfather, and another narrated in turns by Abel’s great-grandmother and Debbie’s great-great-great-grandmother. The book ends with the three little girls, who live with Bernard as his adopted daughters following their abduction. After a peaceful interval they become so sick that he feeds them a cure passed down from his grandmother, which – coupled with his suicide during a blood moon – turns them into vampires. In the final story they run amok for several years before the local townsfolk gang up and kill them, and are later reborn when a well-meaning investigator unwittingly sets them free. If we take away nothing else from this book, perhaps we should remember that faking your death and abandoning your family may lead to the birth of monsters.
For the most part I enjoyed this book, though there were a couple of stories I liked less than the others. I like the writing; the first story in particular is amazing. Most of the stories are narrated in third-person past tense, but “The True Death of Abel Paisley” and “Gratitude” make use of second-person and first-person plural narrators, which work really well for those particular stories, even though they’re not used anywhere else in the book. The characters aren’t especially likable, but they’re not so unbearably unpleasant that I can’t sympathize with them at all, as was the case with Daughters of the Wild. My favorite characters were probably the three little girls, who don’t say much but still manage to transcend everything that happens to them, even death.
The thing is, each of these stories works individually, but I’m not really sure they work together. The book is a little unfocused. Some of the stories fit together; others have loose ends that needed to be tied off. Ruthie, for instance, shows up exactly once. She is the narrating character in the story “Replacement,” which ends with her running away from Abel’s grocery store in an attempt to help Estelle, but she’s never mentioned before or after and there’s no way of knowing if she and Estelle ever connected, or even if Estelle ever found out that she and Ruthie are half-sisters. What is the point of introducing her if she doesn’t do anything? Then there’s Vera’s ghost, who is introduced in the first story but, again, never mentioned in subsequent stories. “The True Death of Abel Paisley” ends with Vera plotting Abel’s demise from the afterlife. What happened to those plans? Abel’s death is briefly mentioned in “Ancestor Worship,” which is narrated by Irene’s son Abe, but there’s no mention of how he actually died; all we know is that Estelle had him cremated, and that Irene probably flushed him down the toilet.
I’m also not convinced that we needed to hear from Debbie. Having received her great-great-great-great-grandfather Harold Fowler’s journal, she is unsure what to do with it but eventually decides to bring it to Jamaica, where it can be studied by a professor at the University of the West Indies. After reading the journal, however, she is plagued by nightmares in which she imagines herself living through the abuses Fowler inflicted on both his slaves and his wife, along with a pervasive guilt at the knowledge that she is directly descended from Fowler. She flies to Jamaica as promised but destroys the journal shortly after arriving, apparently under the impression that this atones in some way for the sins of her ancestors. She later marries Vincent, whom she met in Jamaica, and doesn’t seem to regret the destruction of the journal. This is the part that bothers me the most: she knows the journal is an important historical artifact and could potentially help the descendants of Fowler’s slaves learn about their ancestors, but she decides her own personal guilt and secondhand trauma are paramount and rips it to pieces before it can benefit anyone else. With the journal gone, she still acts as if she’s done future generations an enormous favor by taking notes while she was reading it. She might as well have titled her notebook “You’re Welcome, Black People!” She clearly wants to be told she’s a Good White Person, and in a way it’s almost sad because, despite her attempts to acknowledge and override her own privilege, she is still so selfish and so lacking in self-awareness.
But most likely this was the point. Maybe I’m being too harsh and we really do need Debbie – not because her perspective adds anything to the overall story, but because it illuminates the insidiousness of white privilege, even in those who are trying to be better than their predecessors. If this was the intention, then it was brilliantly done. Though Debbie is privileged in very obvious ways – she can still afford to be an intern at 29, her father pays the rent on her upscale New York apartment – her greatest privilege lies in her ability to completely steamroller the wishes of other people while thinking herself a hero. She makes an enormous decision on behalf of countless others who should’ve had a say but didn’t, blasting her voice over theirs, and suffers exactly zero consequences for it. She is so unaccustomed to being challenged that she bristles when a black museum curator asks her to publicize the journal, and immediately writes her off as scornful and condescending. She knows defensiveness is counterproductive but still gets defensive anyway on certain issues, such as the vilification of her slave-holding ancestors, who absolutely deserve to be vilified.
And I cannot tell a lie: I have met a Debbie. In fact, I have met several Debbies, some more entrenched than others. I have met people who will trip over their own feet to be the first to tell you that everybody is equal but also that racism should not be a deciding factor in a small matter such as, say, the American presidential election. (I have been told that “racism is not an argument.” I wish I were making that up.) I have observed different degrees of Debbieness sprinkled among people who most definitely mean no harm and are not bad or unkind, but who cannot entirely help the attitudes that have been baked into them from childhood. But, while I have no problem with Debbie’s characterization, I still don’t think the book would suffer without her. This all goes back to my broader issue with the book, which is that its parts do not add up to a cohesive whole. I had thought that the book would explore every consequence of Abel’s first death, and for the most part it does, but Debbie isn’t Abel’s fault. I find it hard to imagine that his death – or the absence of it – could have impacted her life in any way, with the possible exception of her marriage, though we have no way of knowing if she would still have met Vincent if Abel had stuck around. It’s true that she plays a very minor role in “Ancestor Worship,” but there’s really no reason that role had to be carried out by her specifically.
Whatever the case, my overall feeling is that the book is too disjointed to really work. The writing is engaging, funny, occasionally mischievous, but the story shuffles through times and narrators at a disorienting pace, making it difficult to bond with the characters. There were a couple of stories that worked really, really well, but, all in all, this is one book that I probably won’t be revisiting.