Title: An Unkindness of Ghosts
Author: Rivers Solomon
Date of Publication: September 2017
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
An Unkindness of Ghosts is not an easy book to read, because the themes it tackles are some of the hardest for humanity to acknowledge and contemplate. I have rarely, in fiction, encountered such a blunt portrayal of normalized oppression, institutionalized poverty, and systemic racism. Yet I find myself unable to claim that Solomon’s portrayal is unrealistic or unbelievable, because I have seen these very things in many times and cultures and places in the pages of history (not excluding our present time). While the setting is pure science fiction (the novel takes place on an enormous spaceship hundreds of years into exile from a dying Earth), the targeted cruelty and indifferent hatred are innately human in the worst sense of that word.
At the beginning of the book, I wondered if perhaps the story was attempting to touch upon too many themes – if the plot and the characters would fall flat under the weight of a treatise or an essay. After the first few chapters, however, circumstances and conversations began to carry the weight of the book, displaying the multiple disparate avenues oppression and bigotry can travel, and giving a painful, complex view into what intersectionality of marginalization can look like. Aster, the main character, is autistic, female (though not gender-conforming, and other characters bend gender lines even more), dark-skinned, and lower class. The people around her, (in general, except for the most powerful on the spaceship), share in at least one of those, and the group dynamics of oppression as well as the individual dynamics are illustrated poignantly and play an important role in the story. And through all of that – through oppression so strong that the hopelessness of it seeps into everything – the plot races ahead, through mystery and romance and rebellion, drawing the reader along.
Since my focus for this month is on autism, I want to specifically address Aster’s autism in the novel. We get to see it from the inside, mostly: a holistic way of being, something that affects the way Aster holds her body, the way she absorbs and evaluates information and sensation, the way she speaks, the way she seeks to understand her own emotions and the words and gestures and intentions of others. I think this aspect of the novel is so well done – to show what being autistic actually means for the person with autism, and writing her actions based on who she is as a person instead of just putting “autistic behaviors” on top of a character who is otherwise coming from a neurotypical perspective.
So why, with all of this good to say about the book, did I only give it 3 stars? Well, it’s rather a personal reason. It left me very unsettled, and not all in the good sense of having been forced to look at unpleasant realities and acknowledge them. Mostly, it didn’t seem like there was any enduring or objective good to hope for – just the indomitable spirit of those who would rather die fighting than give up, and a shot in the dark of space for home and life. Also, there was more vulgarity and sexual content than I prefer to read – some of which was important, and some of which seemed to be excessive (but again, that’s my opinion). Anyway, while I think the novel is important and I’m glad I read it for multiple reasons, I don’t think I’ll read it again, which (since I am an avid re-reader) is one of my criteria for getting 4 or 5 stars.
This is Rivers Solomon’s debut novel. For more information about them and their writing, visit riversolomon.com. In addition, I really enjoyed this interview from Black Warrior Review where Solomon discusses their writing and reading processes.