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.
These Ghosts Are Family moves across time and space as it deftly weaves the families’ paths. One of Harold’s modern descendants, an aspiring museum curator named Debbie, begins to see visions of him after her father gives her Harold’s journal. Debbie repeatedly dreams that she is being subjected to all the atrocities that her ancestor committed. In one scene, she reads of Harold pouring honey on the feet of a young enslaved girl who’d tried to eat some, then waiting for insects to tear into the girl’s flesh. Debbie wakes with her own feet burning, though there are no fire ants in her room. Even before she leaves her family-funded New York apartment to visit Harold Town, Debbie senses that her ancestor’s actions in Jamaica must be atoned for now. Harold’s presence never leaves her.
Ghost stories take on different roles across cultures. In recent American literature, for instance, many such tales have excavated both the country’s genocidal founding and its bleak present. Card’s novel gestures toward America’s inequalities, too, in part through its emphasis on the Fowlers’ unearned wealth. Whether in a former British colony named Jamaica or one called the United States, their whiteness affords them a safety and comfort that the black people around them can never access. Though he was cruel to the Paisleys’ ancestors, These Ghosts Are Family casts Harold’s spirit as a more complicated force in Debbie’s life. While she may want to disavow him entirely, she can’t. Her family’s financial stability does, after all, come from generations of inherited wealth that Harold accumulated through slave labor—wealth that the Paisleys’ ancestors created. And so Card’s duppies function in a decidedly Caribbean manner: as symbols of malice and white domination in the world. (Consider the Bob Marley and the Wailers song “Duppy Conqueror,” in which the reggae legend sings that the “bars could not hold me,” aligning himself with the country’s downtrodden.)
These Ghosts Are Family also wrestles with the limits of human memory. As guardians of Harold’s journal, Debbie and the other Fowlers don’t just sit upon their ancestor’s blood money; they also withhold crucial information from the black Jamaicans whose family Harold enslaved. Harold’s writings provide clues that could help countless people trace the ancestors whose lives weren’t recorded in official 19th-century ledgers. Debbie hoards that knowledge, only sharing it piecemeal with the black historians she encounters through her museum work in New York. Later, she travels to Jamaica herself, offering to show a local professor the journal, only to rip out its pages after he takes her to Harold Town. In the river, where she left Harold’s journal to dissolve, Debbie defies both the living Jamaican scholar and the ancestor haunting her. She cannot bear the weight of what they want her to remember, and so she robs others of the chance to do so, too.
Here, These Ghosts Are Family critiques the very foundation of many accepted mythologies about slavery and colonialism. Like the writing of the Jamaican poet Lloyd W. Brown or the Bajan scholar Kamau Brathwaite, Card’s novel reveals fissures in record-keeping and the fallibility of documents written in colonial English. When anchored in the Paisley family’s experiences, Card’s duppies teach her living characters what “history”—the official sort enshrined by Debbie—cannot. In their capacity for instruction, Card’s ghosts call to mind the spirits that animate texts such as Soucouyant, by the Trinidadian Canadian author David Chariandy. Soucouyant’s protagonist connects with his mother, who has early-onset dementia, through the stories she tells of her childhood in Trinidad. One such tale is that of a duppy known as a “soucouyant,” a witch believed to shed her skin at night and suck her victims’ blood.
While Chariandy’s soucouyant is a distant figure that links the protagonist to his family history, Card’s soucouyants, who appear in the novel’s final sections, force a whole town to remember the harms they suffered while alive. Card weaves these bloodthirsty characters—tragic, but complex—into the novel’s larger arc by emphasizing their origins. Though they weren’t Paisleys, they were among those who suffered as a result of Abel’s deceit. In other words, these soucouyants are a warning, and These Ghosts Are Family is a tale of the most monstrous acts: intimate betrayals with unthinkable consequences.