These Ghosts Are Family

Written by Maisy Card
Review by Fiona Alison

Two events frame this complex, multi-character narrative. Black Jamaican, Abel Paisley’s friend dies in a work accident, but, since ‘the captain has got his wogs confused’, Abel is declared dead. Taking his dead friend’s name, he leaves his family and begins again. Near the end of his life he confesses to his estranged children, as Vera, his first wife’s ghost hovers at his bedside, wondering if her daughter will kill him before Vera gets the chance.

The second event involves Debbie Norgood, the Swedish daughter-in-law that Abel doesn’t know. A cross-referencing DNA study reveals that, although 100% White, she has dozens of Black cousins. By way of explanation her father gives her a tattered journal written by her four-times-great-grandfather, who owned a Jamaican slave plantation around 1813. Debbie is sickened by the unrelenting cruelty in the entries, and wonders if evil can be passed down.

Card’s initial use of ‘Let’s say you are’ and ‘Now, let’s say’ pulls the reader smoothly into her story and works well to aid in understanding the characters and their motivations. In no chronological order we roam back and forth through the years from 1813 to 1832 and from 1966 to 2020.

From the journal and other ‘confessions’ we learn of the rape of Black slaves, the importance of concealing one’s ‘blackness’, the fear of discovery, regardless of skin colour. Card provides a family tree, to which I referred often. I had some trouble with the humorous Jamaican patois as it inevitably paces one’s reading, but it is vital to the characterisations and well worth the effort to understand it because the story is compelling. Card’s novel is about the ties that bind a family’s history, the good and the not-so-good. The author pulls in scenes of traditional Jamaican folklore and superstition to aid in understanding. A timeless, yet timely subject makes this a well-recommended debut.