These Ghosts Are Family hooked me in with the very first sentence: ‘Let’s say that you are a sixty-nine-year-old Jamaican man called Stanford, or Stan for short, who once faked your own death.’ This is how we meet Abel Paisley, the man who has been living as his childhood friend Stanford Solomon for the last thirty-five years. Stanford had helped Abel find a job, working on cargo ships in London. They were the only two black men in the company and when Stanford got killed in an accident at work, somebody mistook him for being Abel. The real Abel seized the opportunity to escape a life where he didn’t feel like a good enough husband or father to his young family back in Jamaica.
In the first chapter, we meet Abel at a point in his life where he’s decided to tell the truth to three of his female descendants - one of whom thought he’d been dead for most of her life. Maisy Card takes us through several different perspectives of this confession, all written in the 2nd person and in a way that really puts the reader in each character’s shoes - just for a moment. We meet five of the main characters, for one or two pages each and get a pretty good introduction to each person and their view on Abel Paisley.
What follows in the next eleven chapters is an unravelling of how Abel’s secrecy and shame has trickled down into the lives of his descendants. Throughout the book, we hear from his children and grandchildren (from both lives), as well his ancestors - who had their own secrets. We travel back in time, all the way to colonial Jamaica where we see into the world of a slave plantation in the 1800s through diary entries and court records. The book also visits other points in time from the last eighty years or so, and moves between different locations in Jamaica and the States. It’s a patchwork tale of family, survival, migration, shame and regret - showing the ripple effect of an individual’s choices.
Each chapter is a short story in itself, with Abel Paisley being the thread running through each one as everyone is connected to him in some way. I really enjoyed how the book was structured like this, as it meant we got to see several different perspectives of each character, which helped to make them all the more real and relatable. We hear many different voices throughout the book and Maisy Card writes in a different style in each chapter too, sometimes using the first person, sometimes second and sometimes speaking collectively for a whole group. Although we found out a lot of the story in the very beginning, there’s still elements that keep you guessing in each chapter. It’s definitely a page turner, as we piece together the puzzle pieces of the family through the very different viewpoints of each of its members.
At the beginning of the book, there's a family tree spanning seven generations, starting in 1796.This is useful to flip back to as the story unfolds, to see how new characters are connected to each other. The tree is full of gaps, question marks and ‘Name Unknown’ - a relatable sight for many with Caribbean heritage who have gaps in their history due to the lack of record keeping of enslaved people.
Maisy Card is particularly good at exploring an adult’s perspective on childhood trauma. There’s a few times in the book where characters are reflecting back on things that happened - either to them, or things they witnessed - when they were younger, sometimes experiencing sudden realisations. This happens most in the sixth chapter, Forgive Me. It’s from the perspective of Vincent, one of Abel’s grandchildren and mainly takes place in Brooklyn in 2011. After meeting someone from back home unexpectedly, Vincent is reminded of a recurring dream and finds himself drawn into memories of the last time he saw that person thirty years ago in Jamaica, when Vincent was a child. It’s a tense chapter that moves between present day and memories of childhood. The reader gets drawn into piecing together Vincent’s memories, trying to work out what it is that actually happened all those years ago. This chapter, and several others, also demonstrate how memories of childhood can differ greatly between siblings - even those that shared many of the same experiences.
The theme of ghosts runs throughout the book in different ways. Spirits appear in characters’ dreams, in old diary entries and some parts of the story are actually told from a post-death perspective. There are also some traditional Jamaican folk tales referenced throughout. This gives a real mystical, magical feel to the book, which I really enjoyed.
All in all, I think this book is really great and I would definitely recommend. It’s multi-layered, gripping, well-paced and it made me both laugh and cry. It provides some interesting historical insights and it’s clear there’s been a lot of research and thought put into the structure and themes. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a family saga or stories told across different generations and locations. The historical element may be particularly interesting to those with Jamaican or Caribbean ancestry - as this was part of the appeal for me. The characters are really believable and the haunted but resilient family is one that I’m sure many people can relate to.