Card explores elements of Caribbean folklore through rich characters and native dialects.Literature Review
"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 opening line of Maisy Card’s debut novel These Ghosts Are Family sets readers up for a complicated family saga with inconceivable consequences.
Card is a writer and librarian with work published in Lenny Letter, School Library Journal, Agni, Sycamore Review, Liars’ League NYC, and Ampersand Review. Born in Jamaica and raised in Queens, she imbues the novel with Caribbean culture. Not only does she often write in dialect and have characters speak in their native tongues, but she infuses elements of Caribbean folklore through depictions of "duppies," or spirits.
The story begins in Harlem in 2005 when Abel Paisley (also known as Stanford Solomon) decides to come clean about a secret he has been keeping for the last 30 years. One day, while working on a boat, his friend Stanford fell to his death. However, onlookers mistook one Black man for another and believed that it was Abel who died, so he decided to go along with the lie and assume Stanford's identity. Abel even notes that this was "the one time racism worked in his favor."
This act of deception undoubtedly had consequences. Abel meditates on what he has done by thinking to himself: "It wasn’t Stanford’s life you had stolen, for he would have lost that regardless. It was his death. Where is his soul now? Circling the world, looking for a grave that does not yet exist?"
Card uses Abel as the foundation to explore familial relationships, generational trauma, death, and ancestry. Taking place over the course of two centuries between Jamaica and Harlem, the story is told in vignettes, with each chapter following the life of one of Abel’s descendants or ancestors.
One of the most engrossing chapters occurs when we are introduced to a woman named Debbie. Unlike many of the characters in the novel, she is white. When she takes a DNA test to locate her roots, she discovers that she has Black ancestors. Confused and eager for answers, she turns to her father. When he gives her a diary written by her great-great-great-great grandfather Harold Fowler, she finds out that he owned a plantation in Jamaica in the 1800s. Abel Paisley and his family are the descendants of those slaves.
This complicates our idea of lineage by adding the element of colonialism. How does this knowledge have the ability to reinterpret one’s sense of self? Debbie wonders the same: "Reading Harold’s diary made Debbie think often about whether evil was passed down. If there was such a thing as hell, she was certain that Harold had tipped the scales so deeply toward eternal damnation he must have tainted the souls of his descendants too."
As shown in the book, these tainted souls are driven to commit unspeakable acts, such as Abel stealing the identity and life of his best friend. He even calls this incident "an opportunity placed before him by God."
These tainted souls also belong to the deceased. Card is very concerned with ghosts and spirits, and the memories that are faded and distant. She makes constant reference to “duppies." The word is often used in the Caribbean and is of West African origin. Used often in folklore, the word refers to spirits. When Abel’s wife Vera passes away, her "duppy still slept in her bed" because it takes nine nights for the spirit to let go of the physical form. This sense of heritage and tradition adds another layer to the novel and transports readers to Jamaica, thus making the novel's cultural depictions more immersive and lively.
These Ghosts Are Family shows how greatly secrets can impact lives. The actions of one’s ancestors can have a ripple effect on the generations to come. The book challenges our perspective of memory and what we choose to hold onto.
Ghosts, spirits, and "duppies" are at the center of the novel and help characters confront generational trauma that they may have otherwise ignored. A testament to how history and memory cannot be shaken or forgotten; they come back to interrogate and tease, and the past becomes an unbearable weight.
Maisy Card has achieved something truly remarkable. If this is what she has to offer for her debut novel, the sky is the limit for what is to come.
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