An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

An Unkindness of Ghosts is one of those books that stays with you, haunts you a little bit, long after you’re done reading it.

The story is set aboard the HSS Matilda, a spaceship that has been carrying tens of thousands of people from a now uninhabitable planet Earth towards a mythical Promised Land for three centuries. An apartheid-like system has been established aboard the Matilda, where the upperdeck is populated by a white and privileged class and the lowerdeck by an enslaved black population. Aster, an orphaned lowdecker, is the brilliant and withdrawn assistant to the Surgeon General. Amidst unexplained blackouts in the lowerdeck and the mysterious illness of the Sovereign, Aster seeks the truth about her mother, who left her strange rambling notes before committing suicide twenty-five years prior.

The setting, the characters, and the strong themes developed throughout the story made for an unforgettable read.

The Sovereignty, the bigoted and racist regime built aboard the spaceship, is a relentless source of misery. From daily humiliations to extreme acts of violence, women lowdeckers are their primary victims. Claiming a divine right to lead the spaceship, the rulers use theological interpretations to their advantage. Sins keep the Matilda further away from the Promised Land, and the Sovereign is the one who defines what qualifies as a sin, and how to atone for it. I wish Solomon has gone further into the politics of the upperdeck, but since the story is told from Aster’s point of view, it’s understandable that the reader is not privy to the political intrigues of the ruling class.

Aster is reason enough to pick up this book. She’s a talented mind, thirsting for knowledge, devoted to scientific pursuits — medicine and botany in particular. She has direct, abrupt manners that can be considered as odd; she misses some social cues and has trouble with figures of speech. One cannot help but fall for her, root for her, while she navigates the dangers of an oppressive and hateful regime in her quest to better understand who her mother was and to protect those she loves.

While the story is mostly told from her point of view, we occasionally get a glimpse of three other characters: Theo Smith, the Surgeon General; Melusine, Aster’s mother figure; and Giselle, her best friend. As a character, Theo competes in complexity and likability with Aster. Born between two worlds, from a lowdeck mother and a father who belongs to the Sovereignty, his lighter skin tone and talents as a physician made him land in the upperdeck. But even as he’s seen as the Heavens’ own tool, a prodigy and saviour, his soft manners and devoutness are often mocked to the point of bullying.

The main theme that, in my opinion, stood out throughout the story was identity. Gender identity and sexual orientation are topics that are central to the story and to the relationships developed in the book. But in a more general way, Solomon explored the idea of how to keep a sense of self in a world that tries to grind you down, keep you down, and shape you as it sees fit. That’s what drives Aster’s quest for her mother’s ghost, and that’s what motivates most of the other characters’ actions.

The book was not an easy read, far from it. Solomon created an unforgiving and harsh universe. I had to put it down on several occasions to take a deep breath. But it also has moments of sweetness, of hope, of levity, even. I’m very glad I picked it up, and I would absolutely recommend it.

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