These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card. Simon and Schuster, 2020. 271 pages.
In Maisy Card’s These Ghosts Are Family, the legacy of trauma takes form. Told in chapters that could be read as individual stories, These Ghosts Are Family is a multigenerational saga featuring a wide range of characters that, despite being vastly different from one another, share a common struggle: living with the figurative and literal ghosts of their ancestors’ pasts. Maisy Card’s multilayered novel is colorful and complex. Readers will be intrigued by a story that is as intricate as the realities its characters face.
The novel begins in 2005 in Harlem. Abel Paisley, a Jamaican man who faked his death decades ago, reunites his family with the intention of confessing that he is not Stanford Solomon, the man whose identity he stole. In this first chapter, which also functions as a prologue, readers are immediately pulled in by Card’s use of second person point of view, where she reveals the impetus that drives Abel to feign his own death and assume the identity of another man. Within that same chapter, readers learn about Irene, the daughter Abel abandoned in Jamaica; Estelle, the daughter he and his second wife raised in New York; and Caren, his granddaughter. By abandoning his family to forge a new life, Abel sets off a domino effect that shatters the lives of those around him. As readers quickly learn how these women’s lives have been stained by the sins of their father, Card begins to build on the notion that trauma carries a legacy, and that one’s life is not exclusively one’s own.
Through authentic dialect, condensed prose, and vivid language, Card delves deeper into the legacy of trauma by weaving a complex narrative that transcends generations, with stories told in different points of view and taking place across centuries and continents, from present-day New York to nineteenth century Jamaica. Readers learn that the legacy of trauma is a ghost in and of itself, with roots that are deep and that can be traced back to a Jamaica where racial atrocities were part of everyday life.
In the novel, ghosts take many shapes. They are sometimes the dead, as with Bully, Abel’s former work colleague, or Stanford, the man whose identity Abel steals. But sometimes the ghosts are the living, with the ideas and beliefs they pass on to others. Readers get a glimpse of this in “The Lion and the Lamb,” where Vera, Abel’s first wife, is tormented by the colorism and colonialism passed on to her from her mother.
The more the reader learns about the lineage and history of the Paisleys (starting with Abel and going as far back as his slave ancestors) the more evident it becomes that these characters are not always the architects of their destiny. At times, the ghosts are in control, often challenging the concept of autonomy and reinforcing the notion that black bodies do not always have agency—that agency is a mirage.
The ghosts cast a wide net, tormenting multiple generations of families, cities, and countries alike. In “Atonement,” readers are introduced to Debbie, a white woman and a descendant of plantation and slave owner Harold Fowler. Compelled by the barbaric depictions of violence documented in her great-great-great-great-grandfather’s journal, Debbie travels to Harold Town, a town named after her slave-owning ancestor. Once there, Debbie seeks to learn more about Harold’s descendants. But as the story unfolds, she becomes increasingly haunted by the atrocities perpetrated by her ancestors, so much so that she can’t grapple with the legacy of her own history.
These Ghosts Are Family defies readers’ expectations of how stories are often told. Not only does Card jump back and forth between different settings and plots, she also writes in different points of view. The shifting points of views used throughout the novel reinforce the fact that we are reading about various people. And regardless of how their journeys are connected by overarching themes like racism, slavery, and colonialism, they ultimately have their own story to tell.
Though there is much to admire in These Ghost Are Family, the true genius is the novel’s structure. The novel challenges the reader’s inclination to expect events in chronological order. Card’s choice to write a multigenerational saga nonlinearly is not only bold and ambitious, but also honest and real, as it accurately reflects the challenges descendants of slaves face when attempting to trace their genetic lineage and history. The novel, appropriately, feels like a puzzle, much like the jumbled origin stories of the African diaspora.
These Ghosts Are Family will not only challenge readers to understand the myriad of ways in which ghosts—whether as supernatural entities or as societal ills—have shaped the lives of the Paisleys, but it will also make them wonder about what they themselves have inherited from the ghosts of their own pasts. Time and time again, readers will be reminded that one’s life is not just one’s own. But even as readers grapple with this notion, the greatest challenge set forth by the novel is that of rethinking the kinds of ghosts we all leave behind.
Annell López’s work has appeared in Hobart, Cagibi, Crack The Spine, Ponder Review, Abstract Magazine, Bending Genres and elsewhere. Annell is an Assistant Poetry Editor for The Night Heron Barks. She isworking on a collection of short stories. In her free time, Annell tours independent bookstores across the United States. She documents her bookish adventures on Instagram. Follow her at @annellthebookbabe.