Monday, January 8, 2018

Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

939 words 
7 minute read

Over the last month or so, I've been reading An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon.  I'd tried to get into it a bit previously but not being a big Sci-Fi reader, I misunderstood that the ship they were on was not a boat, but a spaceship.  (Should have been obvious with it being a Sci-Fi book maybe, but as I said, I don't usually read Sci-Fi.)

If you don't either, don't let this deter you.

This book contains the best disability representation I have ever read in fiction.

In it, we follow Aster (who is Black and autistic-presenting), a 25-year-old low deck resident of Matilda.  Aster is skilled medically and helps other residents of the ship when they become sick or hurt.

Aster learns from Theo, who is both a well-respected surgeon and a religious leader.  (Also notable that Theo is an amputee.)  She is close to Giselle, who is Aster's best friend, who helps her figure out clues Aster's late mother has left beind.  Giselle also has mental illness which is not shied away from - and is, in large part - due to the racist, dehumanizing treatment Black women in particular receive on the ship from the guards, who can do whatever they like.

The most important thing about this text is that it is largely narrated by Aster.  So while we see a lot of outside perceptions, the story itself stays with the protagonist herself.  This way, we do not buy into the faulty belief that Aster is "not all there."

I'm going to attempt to limit this review to only a couple of excerpts / examples of what I love about this text, so that hopefully, you will seek it out and give it a chance for yourself:

From Chapter 1:

"Your model lacks specificity and is therefore useless," she said, speaking more harshly than intended.  This close to the end of the day she lost her ability to modulate her naturally abrupt manner for the comfort of others. 

A couple of things about this excerpt stand out to me.  First, it's a comment on how fatigue can impact disability symptoms.  It's assumed, I've found, that if you have a disability than those symptoms remain consistent all the time, so that a person's disability always looks the same.  Always sounds the same.  The reality is this could not be farther from the truth, and to see this articulated in a book that simultaneously is humanizing and respecting the disabled character?  Well, that's just about unheard of.

The last thing I want to comment on in this excerpt is "for the comfort of others."  So much of what we do and how we live as disabled people is for the comfort of others.  Nondisabled people likely do not think about whether or not they should bring something they need because it might be inconvenient for someone else.  But this is very common for people with disabilities.  (Just the other day, my sis asked if she should bring an accommodation to help her navigate the icy sidewalks or leave it at home.  I said take it.  I told her later, I have the very same back and forth in my head about whether or not to take my wheelchair when I go places.)

"I am going to lift your nightgown for just a moment.  Acceptable?"
Flick lifted the gown themself.

Something else I loved about this book was just how normalized it was to ask (and then wait for) consent.  This is especially poignant as Aster is essentially a medical professional.

First, that communicates that Aster excels in medicine.  She's shown as capable and able to do things that not everyone can.  And while she is still learning, the skills she does have are needed.

Second, Aster asking and waiting for consent of a minor child before doing something so basic as lifting their gown lets the audience know that this child is respected.  While Flick needs a painful medical procedure, they are never left without information, always given answers appropriate for their age and always asked for consent before touching their person or moving any clothing.

As a child, I endured a lot of hospital stays, and was never asked for consent.  This resonated.  I also find myself wondering if Aster is so tuned in to consent because she is Black, and disabled, and female-presenting.  And none of these things are respected onboard Matilda.

From Chapter 14:

People were so often mean that when they weren't, there was a tendency to bestow sainthood upon them.  Aster did not reward common decency with affection.

It's so rare to find a book that accurately comments on the intricacies of what it's like to live disabled, but An Unkindness of Ghosts does it again and again.  This is one of my favorite excerpts in the book, mainly because I have never seen it articulated anywhere before.

I experience this often.  The feeling that if someone is nice - even simply expressing common decency without ableism - I feel so grossly grateful to them.  But I may have to learn from Aster and not reward common decency with affection.  Common decency is expected for human beings and we are human beings.  It isn't "extra" even if it often feels like it is, because "people [are] so often mean."

I'm going to stop there, even though there is so much more I could quote.  Check out this book to read a desperately necessary story featuring intersectional characters, respectfully depicted.

You won't regret it.

It's available here:  Click to buy An Unkindness of Ghosts


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  1. I would love to read and/or listen to AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS.

    That quote from chapter 14 is so important. Finn

    Finn Gardner wrote about an intelligence promoter who does not seem to value decency as a personal value [as opposed to a social one].

    I love Aster's approach to consent - I hope it is in more sci-fi.

    Often sci-fi reminds us we are human.

  2. Adelaide,

    I went back and added a link so you can find the book. It is a very important quote from chapter 14 and I also love Aster's approach to consent, too! I don't think I've ever read sci-fi for pleasure so I never realized how much your final comment is true - it really DOES remind us we are human <3

    1. Tonia,

      a lot of my own early reading was sci-fi and sci-fact like things which came from Beyond 2000 [a science show] and Hot Chips.

      My last big sci-fi read for pleasure and challenge was the Dune series by Frank Herbert and I started off with the series/stories by his son Brian before getting into the main series. This was February-May 2016.

      And what you read for pleasure, Tonia, is what you *read* for *pleasure*.

  3. Tonia,I never even heard of this book. I hope the writer of "Ramp Your Voice" sees this review. Nice to see some more POCs with disabilities. In regards to the first excerpt, I always take the mobility aid etc that I need unless I am with someone who has another health concern which would make using said mobility aid more trouble than it was worth.

    Adelaide, so true! I always love Sci Fi.

    1. Margot,

      which sci-fi have you enjoyed in the recent past?

      I have just read THE DEATH OF BEES by Lisa o"Donnell which is about two Scottish sisters - Nelly the younger and Marnie the elder - and a grandfatherly figure in their lives who might have more sinister intentions - Lennie.

      And there's a mystery by Robert Galbraith which is about Comorant Strike.

      Hope the person with the other health concern is shifting for themselves.

  4. Margot,
    Yes, Vilissa knows about this :) It is definitely a book worth reading.


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