The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts
by Soraya Palmer
Genre: Literary Fiction / Family Life
Print Length: 288 pages
Reviewed by Erica Ball
A traumatized family reckons with the stories – good and bad, painful and joyful – that have made them who they are.
The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts centers on the Porter family (Nigel, Beatrice, Sasha, and Zora) living in Brooklyn, New York at the turn of the millennium. Nigel and Beatrice, the parents, are both deep in battles with demons of their pasts so the girls are left to navigate the resulting turmoil while also growing up and coming of age as children of Black immigrants.
Nigel and Beatrice came to the US as family outcasts, after childhoods that their children know little about. Nigel had grown up in Jamaica and Beatrice was from Trinidad. The traumatic episodes of their early life have left them telling and retelling their formative stories to themselves, each other, and their children.
As time passes and traumatic cycles continue, more stories are woven around them and their understanding of their lives. As such, the book is about the many ways the characters use stories: as a refuge, as a weapon, and as a way to hide from the truth.
The narrative sweeps back and forth in time as the characters work through the issues of their past, meaning it is set variously in Brooklyn, Trinidad, and Jamaica. Some of it is told by the characters in first-person, but much is revealed by an omniscient narrator referring to themselves as “Your Faithful Narrator.”
With a delightful talent for storytelling, the narrator turns what in other books would be rather mundane scene-setting into fairytale-like vignettes with references to nature and symbolism, drawn from folklore traditions in Trinidad and Jamaica. As such, characters like Anansi, Rolling calf, Mama Dglo, and other animals make appearances.
Some readers may find it challenging to keep up with the way the narrative switches between realistic and mythical themes. Yet, those readers who embrace folk or fairy tales as a lens for understanding reality, or changing their understanding of it, will greatly enjoy being swept along by an author that is fluent in that language.
In addition, a major strength of the book is the author’s ability to sparingly depict the characters’ complex–almost unexplainable–-human reactions. Each member of the family is asked to look past violence from those they love, endure pain and shame, and even pick themselves up after atrocious trauma. They somehow persevere in the face of casual and blistering bigotry, racism, and sexism.
And it’s their stories that help them do that. Their stories change with the telling as needed by what they’re trying to communicate, but also as their ability to process what happened increases, as their perspective on it all changes, and as they become more able to handle the truths in them. And their stories are horribly heavy, dealing with illness, sexuality, trauma, shame, poverty, violence, religion, and hypocrisy. Moreover, they occur in places still struggling with the inner and outer turmoil of places subjected to the brutalities of colonialism and the cyclical nature of intergenerational trauma.
But in the end, the family — and the reader — can see that life is a patchwork of stories from countless generations that come together to form a larger picture. The book is about the power of these stories to reflect back reality, but also to shape the way it looks. It’s about how these stories are passed from person to person, from parent to child, and then back again. With each telling, we have some control over our stories. Not necessarily to change them, but to understand and interpret what they hold. The core of the story, though, cannot be changed and cannot be denied forever.
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