To whom does one life belong? As the man born Abel Paisley prepares to greet death, the question takes on a sudden urgency. At the beginning of her new novel, These Ghosts Are Family, Maisy Card sketches the swindler’s portrait: Decades prior, when his friend Stanford Solomon died on the job in England, Abel assumed the other Jamaican man’s identity. Leaving his old name and family behind, he claimed a life that was never his. “Where is his soul now?” Card writes of Stanford. “Circling the world, looking for a grave that does not yet exist?”
These Ghosts Are Family doesn’t follow Stanford’s wandering soul, but it does trace the fallout of Abel’s decision over the next several decades. By the time the elderly man gathers his daughters and granddaughter in his Harlem brownstone in a contemporary scene to tell them the truth, his family has long been fractured. Unaware of each other’s existence, the Paisley and Solomon daughters endured isolation and poverty across oceans, mountains, and New York City boroughs. Zeroing in on how Abel’s original sin affected each of the women, These Ghosts Are Family joins other recent novels that track troubled families over generations. But while books such as Yaa Gyasi’s transatlantic opus, Homegoing, and Namwali Serpell’s Zambian epic, The Old Drift, home in on the experiences of their living characters, Card’s novel stretches beyond the earthly realm.
Like other works of Caribbean literature, These Ghosts Are Family takes a wide-ranging approach to its depiction of undead spirits. The titular beings aren’t just malevolent boogeymen who show up to frighten the living, as in a Halloween tale. Rather, they drift in and out of the humans’ perception, shifting people’s relationship to the world around them by compelling overdue reckonings. Some of Card’s ghosts, such as those that manifest in Jamaica as a result of Abel’s faked death, are born of recent familial wrongs. Others force characters to remember longer-buried transgressions, recalling the tradition of Haiti’s post-revolution zombie folklore, which emerged from imagined horror stories about enslaved people trapped in their bodies after death.
In its invocations of ghosts, or “duppies” as they’re sometimes called throughout the Caribbean and its diaspora, Card’s book joins a literary tradition that challenges imperial records of history by imbuing the present with voices from the past. Not all of Card’s ghosts were once enslaved, but they still unearth the institutional evils that shaped modern Jamaica—namely, the transatlantic slave trade and British colonialism. For example, while Abel’s 20th-century deceit causes chaos among his living descendants, no figure in These Ghosts Are Family wreaks more havoc than the late slave owner Harold Fowler. Harold, the British man for whom Abel and Stanford’s hometown in Jamaica was eventually named, presided over a massive plantation in the early 19th century—and delighted in the violence required of his post. In some sections, Card gives contemporaneous descriptions of Fowler’s depravity, and its effects on the white women and enslaved people in his charge. Taking care to also depict Fowler’s brutality through the eyes of the black Jamaicans he domineered, Card’s novel draws a direct line from Harold to the trauma that now shapes Abel’s family. Harold’s soul never appears in a room with a Paisley or a Solomon; he doesn’t lurk inside dark closets. His haunting is more insidious, palpable in the two centuries of lives destroyed, familial connections ruptured, and economic stability stolen.