An Unkindness of Ghosts - Book Review
by Rivers Solomon
An immersive, sorrowful story of rebellion and enduring pain, An Unkindness of Ghosts is a deep, complex, and moving novel about class, race, and the repeated horrors society continues to perpetuate.
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship's leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.
When the autopsy of Matilda's sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother's suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother's footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she's willing to fight for it.
The novel strikes the perfect balance between deliberate parallels/themes and being heavy-handed. While I was 100% clear on what the book was doing, the generational ship as a recreation of the antebellum South to craft a segregation scenario, that aspect was developed enough (in how control of the lower decks by the upper decks was maintained) to show how, in the future, society is still repeating the same terrible division and enslavements as centuries past. In setting this story in the future, Solomon reminds us that the antebellum wasn’t that long ago, the repercussions are still felt today, and it isn’t too unlikely to repeat itself (if not literally, at least economically or institutionally). Unfortunately, I would have liked to see a more nuanced or less generic villain - he was almost a caricature in his limited development and time on the page - and more blame placed on organized religion, which (along with money) was a major proponent of enslavement in not just the United States, but world history.
Aster, the main character, is neurodivergent, but in a way that felt authentic in the prose. It also wasn’t the main thing about her - she was a complex person striving to understand not only her past but her future in a way that wasn’t just about self-discovery but life-saving. I really liked following her and seeing her world through her eyes, as much as the more I learned the more horrified I became. I didn’t find anything jarring about her narration and found it easy to follow.
I also liked the small sections in other characters’ viewpoints, as it helped round out the story and explained more about the ship and the people. It also helped us understand Theo, a person struggling with their desire to be non-binary in a region of the ship that demands they repress that aspect and project as male. As such, the novel deals with not only race, but heteronormativity, police brutality, and the right to bodily autonomy. The novel shows us these things in a way that is surprisingly less violent than it easily could have been, a technique that serves to teach rather than shock. There is violence in this novel, references to sexual assault, and suffering though.
I enjoyed how there aren’t large info-dump sections about how the ship functions and the experiences the characters endured. Giselle’s personality, actions, and why Aster puts up with her volatile aspects, make far more sense when you eventually learn the extent to which she suffered.
Solomon writes in compelling prose that is both visceral and easy to understand.
Yet, I did find the story lacked a bit of focus at times. I wasn’t sure how Aster’s actions would inspire a massive change in the ship’s societal functions or what the ending was trying to say. Then again, perhaps that is the point – slavery in the South didn’t end because of one thing, but many. To try and “fix” the problem with one uprising or disposing of one dictator isn’t enough to enforce real change.
Lastly, as usual, I really shipped two of the characters and enjoyed how their story flowed logically with their personalities, was based on mutual respect and admiration, addressed sex post-sexual assault, and wasn’t some big thing that saved the day.
Overall, I found it a compelling, enthralling story that I had trouble putting down. It was the October read for the Intergalactic Book Club and while we were supposed to talk about it in parts, I couldn’t stop reading!