Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.75 Stars

The first time I listened/read this book, I was in a pretty bad place mentally. My beloved kitty was in what would turn out to be the early stages of a terminal illness. Plus, I'd evacuated for a hurricane and returned to a damaged roof, wrecked yard, weeks of limited internet access. While I found An Unkindness of Ghosts to have well-written dialog, (I liked the distinct deck dialects and character voices), I viewed the story as pretty much unrelentingly dark and thought that the situation for the protagonist was unresolved at its end. While I was sure that Rivers Solomon was giving us a truly unique world, I wasn't sure what they were trying to do in that world. Was it a ZenSlap to try to get us to stop looking at conditions of slavery as a thing of the past or solely as an earthbound concept? What happened here? Was this the story of a rebellion that changed everything? Nothing? I didn't know what to make of the book other than the fact that I felt that Rivers Solomon was a very original writer. I didn't even begin to know how to review the book, so I set it aside to think about it for a while. (I did nominate them for the Campbell Award, btw. Just because I have trouble framing my thoughts doesn't mean I don't know great stuff when I'm reading it.)

Solomon is now a Campbell Award finalist, so I took up the book again, listening to the audiobook which is narrated beautifully by Cherise Boothe. I wanted to finally suss this story out. To reexamine its complexity, and what it says about race, class, neurotypical manners, love, orientation. There is literally so much going on here that it's hard, even now, to know where to begin, even though I'm in a different headspace at present.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is set on a huge, aging spaceship, the Matilda. The ship is progressively falling apart, and just like on the Titanic, it's the lower class decks that suffer most. The Matilda is like a plantation spaceship, in which the upper classes are all white, and the lower, working classes are pretty much all black. This is a story about slavery, set in space. (I keep imagining Octavia Butler reading this story...)

Aster, the protagonist, is a healer and a very learned black woman. She is also, one can infer, on the autism spectrum. Communication, language, even simple handwriting, have not come easily to her. But Aster is a master observer of the human condition, and she is a voice in the darkness, crying out for justice. Her two closest friends, if you can call them that, are Giselle, a friend since childhood who is a problematic personality due to her many traumas suffered, and Theo, a mixed-race doctor who is the son of a now-deceased leader on Matilda and a lower deck black woman. Theo enjoys some of the benefits of his father's position and connections. For various reasons that become apparent in the story, Theo, Aster, and Giselle all rail against the system, while suffering its indignities. Theo fairs the best, and Giselle the worst, while Aster engages in various types of protest.

The book grabs you from the beginning, where a child, Flick, is about to have her foot amputated by Aster. The lower decks have had all their heat turned off. Flick's foot suffers frostbite and becomes gangrenous. Oh, Flick.... /quiet sobs/ Let me state clearly for those looking for sunny times or a light-hearted ghost story that things will not be improving. I think its darkness was part of what made me struggle on first reading it. You have to be ready to read this book. It isn't a horror story but there are horrors, and they primarily deal with white privilege and the use and abuse of people of color. The ghosts of the title are complex to explain without spoiling some of the plot.

This is a challenging book in that it challenges your expectation for neat resolutions and justice. It propels you forward and leaves the reader questioning. It will leave you aching but mesmerized. I am eager to read more of Rivers Solomon's work and have started supporting them on Patreon.

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