“She had happened upon an erased chalkboard, and though she could see the unsettled dust of calcium carbonate, there was no putting together what had been written there before. Everything left a trace, but sometimes a trace was not enough.”
Rivers Solomon’s debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts has received critical acclaim and attention from all corners since its publication in late 2017, and I finally know why.
It’s so unique!
Now, sometimes “unique” doesn’t mean “great”, and I’ll admit to a little of that here. For the most part, though, I’m in awe of Solomon’s debut work and can’t wait to see what they come out with next. This is clearly just the start of a beautiful and moving career.
In brief, Solomon sets the oft-visited generation ship vision against a challenging framework of classism, racism, and bald-faced oppression the back cover likens to the “antebellum south”. The resulting setting is ripe with an atmosphere I found inspiring and difficult in spades, and I’m awed by how skillfully Solomon builds this scaffolding and then weaves their story through it.
As a non-stop fan of all things scifi (Star Wars is fantasy in space; don’t @ me) one of the joys of my life is seeking out the stories that inspired new fiction. I can safely say that I’ve read nothing quite like An Unkindness of Ghosts.
I did struggle from just about page 1 with the characters. Historically I do struggle with more spare POV characters, so it should not be surprising that in this fairly dystopic environment we’d follow more spare characters. The narrative was so engaging that (aside from one stand-out exception) my personal struggle with the character didn’t interrupt my immersion in any meaningful way.
The one exception, Giselle, (whom we meet almost immediately) was a constant struggle throughout the book. A full 1/3 of my notes for this book are just about how much I dislike her. HOWEVER, there are some important things to note about this! 1) Giselle’s character stay’s consistent throughout the book. So many times, authors write challenging characters when it’s convenient to the plot and tone them down unless their dysfunction is material to the scene. Serious respect to Solomon for not doing that. By keeping Giselle consistent(ly difficult), they make the character vitally real. 2) This story’s setting is unavoidably uncomfortable, being based in racism and classism, and Giselle definitely kept me on edge in a story for which that feeling seems really appropriate.
Another notable factor that really struck me about An Unkindness of Ghosts was the interjection of non-standard English grammar and vocabulary. Now, while I don’t know this for certain I did gather that the vernacular Solomon used was inspired by AAVE. If true, this directly feeds into the calls in the setting to antebellum south. Where sometimes these interjections can be distracting, Solomon uses them consistently throughout the narrative to great effect.
Finally, without betraying anything about the ending, I’m really impressed by where Solomon took their story. They sidestepped tropes and wrote a story that felt vital through to the end.
Note: I was lucky enough to have received a copy of this book annotated by Rivers Solomon’s own hand via PageHabit.