“Let’s say that you are a sixty-nine-year-old Jamaican man . . .who once faked your own death.” With this tantalizing opening, Card introduces Abel Paisley, whose forebears, offspring and relations people the novel. Relationships are sufficiently complex that Card gives readers a family tree for reference.
Card is a natural storyteller. Whole family histories are compressed into two pages, stories building upon stories like strata of earth. We travel between Jamaica and New York haunted by ghosts, cruel white overseers, family members with addictions and the weight of an ancestry tormented by white exploitation. Card probes racism’s cancerous impact as internalized by black Jamaicans, while whites in Jamaica and America abuse their privilege. But not every story is a symbol of that oppression. We also get to know Abel’s ex-wife Vera, for example; how intimidating he found her; and her secret, volatile relationship with her “yard boy” Bernard.
Abel’s family history unfurls out of order but with an arc that holds it all together. Card links family members and seemingly unrelated stories, leaving gaps for speculation. Whose memory is accurate? Whose judgment is reliable? Daughters resent mothers, mothers resent lovers, lovers are let down and forgotten. Whole histories are obliterated: Debbie, a white researcher investigating her forebear’s history of raping slaves, discards his narrative into a Jamaican river in horror. In this novel, no one escapes generational trauma.
Card writes in first, second and third person, and presents one story through a journal. She has a marvelous ear for dialect. Because stories unfold quickly through a range of narrators, it’s not always clear who’s speaking. Nevertheless, the result is a rich stew, teeming with grudges, humor, doubt, loss and love.
At the beginning of the book, Card discusses her own family background. She describes the havoc wreaked by a grandfather who sired children in and out of marriages, the resulting resentments rippling over generations. It is a quibble to say her note might better have come as an afterword. For no explanation is needed; this book is a powerful statement of the impacts of what came before.
When one of Abel’s abandoned children confronts him with his neglect, “she didn’t know what to feel toward him.” That sentiment is emblematic. It’s not that characters don’t feel, it’s that they feel a confusing mélange of emotions that can’t be reconciled. It is a measure of Card’s skill that we come to know these characters in three dimensions, even as they struggle to know themselves.
Martha Anne Toll is a Washington D.C.-based fiction writer and book reviewer.
These Ghosts Are Family
By Maisy Card
Simon & Schuster. 288 pp. $26