In contrast to my last book review, where I thought reading about a plague probably wasn’t the best read for the current time, An Unkindness of Ghosts is the perfect book to read during this week especially. More than that, it is an important book to read during this week.
And I am completely, utterly, devastatingly unqualified to review it.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is an emotional gut-punch throughout. The premise alone is brilliant: a spaceship, the Matilda, is taking the remnants of humanity to an unknown destination, a future home. But whatever happened to Earth has done nothing to unite humanity: in fact, the decks (lettered A-Z) are organized according to class, with the lowest decks, the “Tarlands” accorded to the field hands–Black people. It’s of course not unfamiliar; “organized like the antebellum South”, the blurb reads.
The story centers on Aster, a doctor and scientist. Primarily, Aster wants to find out what happened to her mother 25 years before–why this brilliant, seemingly mentally-unstable woman committed “self-murder” just after Aster’s death. This quest drives the plot, even as other factors press in around it and intertwine: Aster’s complicated relationship to the Surgeon, a half-Black (but passing as white) doctor who supports her education and so much more; her sense of identity and belonging with the people she grew up with, although the nuances are difficult for her to comprehend; her own gender identity and sense of self; and of course the knowledge that the entire system aboard the Matilda is unfair.
Solomon’s writing is fantastic, and everything is woven together so beautifully and perfectly. The brief POV switches to other important characters provides a jarring contrast to Aster’s own way of seeing the world (I especially loved the bits from Aster’s “sister” Giselle). (On this note, I think Aster is intended to be on the autism spectrum–the way she sees the world, can’t understand nuance and sarcasm, delayed speech, etc. But nothing is stated about this, perhaps because such diagnoses did not exist on the Matilda or because those who might diagnose them wouldn’t care about someone like Aster.) The issues have been transported seamlessly to a sci-fi setting and updated in the process. The exploration of gender woven throughout is fascinating, both in Aster’s own sense of self (as well as Theo/the Surgeon’s), but also in the way gender seems so rigidly defined in the abovedecks and so fluid in the lowerdecks. And of course, the issue of inequality and cruelty and hatred is very much relevant to our time.
And I must state again here just how unqualified I am to expound on any of these issues. I am from a very white background both in where I grew up and in my field of study (unfortunately) and enormously privileged in so many ways. I also rarely step into sci-fi, so even aside from the more pressing issues it’s difficult for me to analyse this as I would fantasy. But I am hugely grateful that An Unkindness of Ghosts was one of this month’s book club picks. It had been on my radar, as in I’d heard other book people talking about it via BookTwitter, and the premise alone is fantastic. But I’m not sure I ever really would have picked it up without the impetus, and that’s on me. So, thank you to #CannonBookClub. I hope others will also read it before the discussions in a few weeks, as I am really looking forward to discussing it with people who might have other perspectives to offer.
As a last thought, it feels weird to give this a star rating. I enjoyed it immensely and have no qualms about giving it 5 stars (as I have) but it feels so trivial to be like “five stars! great read!”