‘In the ground they found that they could speak to their mothers. All the women who had ever been transformed under a blood moon. They were not alone. Somehow, though they were trapped in that grave, they were everywhere, with everyone at the same time. The women told the three little girls how to blaze across the night sky. How to shed their skin. How to make people forget after you fed on them, and, most important, how to get older, and when they were old, how to get younger.’
Spoiler alert: this post contains spoilers.
Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.
I added Maisy Card’s These Ghosts are Family to my list of recommendations before I even finished it – I liked it that much. At the same time, I struggled writing this post. This is perhaps because the book is more complicated than it appears to be at first glance, so much so that it is easier to analyse than review it. I will consequently discuss three themes which I detected while reading These Ghosts are Family: family, ghosts and the supernatural.
The book is divided into different parts, each told by a different character at a different time. Parts of the story are set in the present day, parts in the 2010s and 2000s, then we have parts which are set in the 1990s and the 1960s and then again others which take place in the 19th century. The story is mostly set in Jamaica and the US, although parts take place in the UK, too. The characters, finally, are all connected to each other – by family, history, time or place (to put it very simply). There is Abel Paisley, his daughter Estelle Solomon and her daughter Caren – all based in New York, although Abel’s story of course begins in Jamaica. Then there is Vera, Abel’s first wife, Vera’s daughter Irene and her son Vincent, and their houseboy Bernard. Their stories are set in both Jamaica and the US. There is Debbie, an American whose ancestors were plantation and slave owners in Jamaica. Then there is Ruthie, also an American, who is Abel’s daughter from an affair. There are Abe and Chloe, Irene’s children. And finally, there are Florence, Louise Paisley and Peta-Gay Fowler, whose stories take place in 19th century Jamaica.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first theme I noticed is that of family. Most characters seem to have a complicated relationship with their families; yet at the same time they can’t let go of them – they are, perhaps, ‘haunted’. There is the recurring idea that the characters want to run away from or leave their families. Vera, for example, leaves her family to ‘start a new life with Abel’. Abel, then, feels a ‘sense of freedom’ when he fakes his own death, only ‘dampened’ by the thought of the family he ‘left behind’. Nevertheless, he doesn’t seem to be very sorry about leaving his old life and family behind, at least not until the very end of his life. Estelle feels grateful that her ‘family does not even exist’ when Abel tells her he faked his own death, and Caren finds ‘it hard to think of anything else besides getting away’ from her family. Irene moves ‘farther and farther from Jamaica’ so she doesn’t have to see her mother, who she has been running away from ‘her whole life’. Nevertheless, through her death it is Vera who leaves Irene in the end. Bernard wants to remind Irene and Vincent that he is ‘family too’, but they don’t see him like that. Ruthie, finally, is ‘running away’ so she does not ‘have to face anybody’. The exception to the rule is Debbie. Debbie, contrary to most characters in the book, is dependent on her father, who pays for her rent, and wonders how she would ‘manage without him’. She doesn’t seem to want to ‘run away’ from him, although her relationship with her father is complicated, too.
The theme of ghosts is of course, and the title gives it away, related to the theme of family. The ghosts haunting the characters in the book are family ghosts, as we have seen: Abel is haunted by the family he leaves behind, especially Vera; Irene is haunted by Vera; Bernard as well; Caren is haunted by Estelle. The characters all try to live their own lives but can’t let go of their families and their family histories. They are consequently haunted by more than family; they are haunted by personal tragedy, love and loss and, ultimately, regret.
The ghosts in this book aren’t only family, however. The ghosts are also history – colonialism and slavery, for example. Debbie is for example haunted by her ancestors’ past as plantation and slave owners and thinks that history is ‘easier to digest’ when you are ‘disconnected from it’, that sometimes knowledge is ‘overrated’. I believe the characters are also haunted by Jamaica, that is, the characters that have left Jamaica to live somewhere else, such as in the US. Estelle for example thinks that her parents speak of Jamaica as a country that only exists in their minds but not in real life. Moreover, in another chapter, funerals are mentioned as the ‘only reason to come home again’ – to me, this means that some people who left never want to ‘come home’ to Jamaica, but that they can’t let go of it either.
Racism also plays a great part in Card’s book – perhaps it is another ghost the characters are haunted by. Vera for example learns from her mother Patricia that ‘whiteness was partly a state of mind’ and that ‘near white was enough white’. Some Jamaicans, meanwhile, leave the country because of people like Bernard; it is because of him that they have to abandon their ‘education’, their ‘almost-white, brown, and high-yellow privilege’. But in the foreign countries, they are ‘Bernards’ – the ‘underclass’, ‘health aides, janitors, and nannies’. Card describes a racism that is both inflicted by others and self-inflicted; she appears to criticise an attitude certain Jamaicans presently hold or have held in the past, one that is damaging to their own people. Now, as a white European woman it is difficult for me to write about racism – not in the sense that I can’t see it when it is mentioned in the book (or in real life, of course), but in the sense that I won’t ever truly be able to understand it or imagine what it feels like. What I’ve written here is therefore not meant in the sense that I understand racism; it is simply my interpretation of Card’s words.
What I can, however, understand or imagine is how white people deal (or not deal) with racism. This is something Card brings up in Debbie’s chapter, which rightly criticises white people and their attitude. It is for example mentioned that most white people ‘were apologetic’ about the past – slavery, in this case – but that ‘some were openly hostile when anyone suggested that they had something to apologize for’. Others yet were ‘defensive’ which Debbie thinks is the ‘worst reaction’. Moreover, Debbie doesn’t want the ‘only black curator at the museum’ to ‘think that she was one of those white people who were in denial about their white privilege’. Perhaps it is this white privilege which allows Debbie to be able to rely on her family, while the other (mostly black) characters have to run away from theirs? Furthermore, Debbie has a dream about being in, presumably, 19th century Jamaica and afterwards wonders if ‘all white people secretly have some strange antebellum or colonial fantasy’. Because she has ancestors who were plantation owners in Jamaica, Debbie thinks that Jamaican culture is ‘in a way, her culture too’. Finally, Vincent, following his marriage to Debbie, wonders: ‘There was something about the way she was constantly showing him off to her friends that made him uneasy. He felt just like another figurine she’d picked up on her travels’.
There is one more issue Card deals with in her book: violence and discrimination against women. And this is another reason why I like this book – because I think it particularly emphasises these two issues. Card seems to focus on women especially when she describes the violence slaves had to endure in 19th century Jamaica. She uses Maddie, Cleo and Florence (who is later sentenced to death) for this, who are tortured by Harold Fowler on his plantation. Moreover, Louise Paisley finds out more about plantation life: ‘First, he told me about life on the plantation, how it would be for girls like me. How men compete to be the first to break in the girls. I didn’t quite understand the phrase. I was used to hearing it only applied to horses, but he explained it to me. It was nothing but a game to them. I shuddered to think of it.’ Louise is later used to criticise attitudes towards people from a mixed-race background, again including self-inflicted attitudes.
Nevertheless, Card also deals with the discrimination white women had to face in, again, 19th century Jamaica – for example Katrin, Harold Fowler’s wife, and Peta-Gay Fowler, who for example says: ‘My mother was just a dog to him. We women are all dogs to men, as I saw it back then. Some of us were treated better because of our pedigree. If we were pure breeds, rare breeds, we could be married at least, but we were all raised for breeding nonetheless.’
Finally, there is the more general theme of the supernatural in These Ghosts are Family. Ghosts are, of course, supernatural, but Card uses other examples. I am, of course, referring to the Three Little Girls. I’m not sure I completely grasp the meaning behind them, what Card wants to show us through them. Yet they have to be discussed – they seem too important in Card’s story. The Three Little Girls make their first appearance during Vera’s funeral and eventually follow Bernard into the bush. We meet them again in the very last chapter, called ‘How We Are Born’, which takes place in Harold Town, Jamaica, from 1999 to 2010. The Three Little Girls in their white dresses are, as we find out, apparently vampires or something similar – emerging from the bushes, they eat all the town’s or village’s animals and even steal a baby. They can also change into cats and birds, apparently, and don’t grow older. The villagers eventually kill and bury them, but they resurrect when a private detective digs them up years later.
As I said, I’m not sure what the Three Little Girls stand for – perhaps, because vampires suck away blood, hence life, the Three Little Girls stand for all the ghosts that suck away the life of the book’s characters – family, history, racism? The chapter is called ‘How We Are Born’ – perhaps this means that we are born with something destructive, like the Three Little Girls are, with ghosts that won’t leave us for the rest of our lives but that we nevertheless survive?
The only thing I didn’t like about These Ghosts are Family is that it somehow feels unfinished. Card says that These Ghosts are Family was, among others, inspired by Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing (one of my favourite books – post here…). This is true: similar to Homegoing, each chapter in Card’s book is told by a different character at a different time. However, Gyasi’s Homegoing is told chronologically and while every character only gets one chapter, we find out enough about them, their feelings and the events that shape them; so the story overall feels completed. This can’t be said for These Ghosts are Family, though. I would have liked to find out more about certain characters and their stories. Right at the beginning of the book, for example, we find out that Solomon Stanford is actually Abel Paisley who faked his own death. The first chapter is about how Abel confesses this to his two daughters and granddaughter. And yet we never properly find out what the three women think about Abel’s confession – we get the basics, that’s it. I also would have liked to find out more about certain other characters, such as Ruthie. We get to know different perspectives, different stories and different histories, and I also like how Card plays with different narrators – sometimes it’s a first-, sometimes a third- and sometimes a second-person narrator; but it just feels like there is more to some of the characters, that the stories Card tells us about their lives feel shortened, not completed. Moreover, I prefer Gyasi’s way of telling her story chronologically – it is easier to understand and make the connections between the different characters. Not that the story in These Ghosts are Family is difficult to follow; but I did find it confusing sometimes and it would have been easier had it been told chronologically.
But these are the only parts I didn’t like about These Ghosts are Family – I liked everything else. This has, as usual, to do with how much we can learn from the book. As you will know by now, I love history, so it was interesting to find out more about Jamaica and its history while reading the book – both are topics I don’t know much about. The book has made me want to find out more (which is always good!), so I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more books about Jamaica. For now, however, I would recommend These Ghosts are Family to anyone who is interested.
About Maisy Card
Maisy Card was born in Jamaica and raised in both Jamaica and the US. She graduated from Rutgers University with a Master in Library and Information Sciences and holds a Bachelor in English and American Literature from Wesleyan University. She is a writer and public librarian and her work has appeared in Lenny Letter, School Library, Agni, Sycamore Review, Liars’ League NYC and Ampersand Review. These Ghosts are Family is her first book. More on her website.