Families and familial relations are where feelings such as love, desire, anger, hurt, anguish, betrayal, guilt, frustration not infrequently reach a tipping point. The bonds that bind parents, children, siblings are so overdetermined that it often becomes impossible to think and see clearly, and even more so when their circumstances are infused with tragedy. Family relationships thus provide a rich seam of writing about memory, guilt, identity and location; no matter how far you have travelled, and no matter how hard you resist them, these relationships return you, literally or metaphorically, to the place called home.
Ghosts starts with the impossibility of wholeness; the past is a wound or a scar that never quite heals. Set on the fictional island of Jacaranda (but referencing Jamaican culture and speech) the novel comprises a “family album” of sisterly narratives as siblings come to terms with their brother’s murder but never quite find peace. These stories of Mitch (Micheline), B (Beatrice), Vangie (Evangeline) and, more fleetingly, Peaches (Cynthia), also incorporate diary entries by their dead brother, Pete, and accounts of their beautiful cousin, Tramadol, who never returned Pete’s love the way he wanted to be loved. Narrated either in their own voices or written by Mitch, the novel reads like a series of fragments of shipwrecked lives, each story containing the ghosts of other stories, and never quite complete enough to offer the reader full understanding; neither do these confession give the sisters full absolution for the myriad ways in which they think they are culpable. The sisters, save Peaches “the practical one”, are very richly drawn. Accounts and voices are so interwoven that events and memories circle around each other. Bookended by Mitch, who is distrusted by her sisters to get the story right, and who herself worries about embellishment and the fixing words and memories that have “slipped out of joint, and out of their assigned places, as if print is written in water”, the novel is also about the poetics of confession, writing and storytelling.
The time span of the Ghosts, some sixty years from the near past to 2059, refers to the curing of AIDs, global warming and the catastrophic rising of sea waters, driverless cars, outer-space, growing new skins, cyberchutes and the “Global Museum of Printed Books”; as such, the novel falls within the domain of science fiction. Yet Ghosts wears these generic clothes very lightly and to my mind, it would be odd to categorise the novel as science fiction. Even the skinless dwarf child, encased in his membrane or amniotic sac, who is promised a new skin to render him normal, works more as a symbol for new births and transformations. Thus, save for its explicit apocalyptic and futuristic references, I’m not exactly sure what these science fiction elements add to the novel. Ghosts works best as a timeless and mythic account of hurts: wounds and stories that never go away but haunt. As Evangeline says to her sister B, `Outer space not all that far… The chains that hold us to this place where our dead lie deep, always pull us back.” Much like Freud’s idea of the unconscious as a mystic writing pad, narration in Ghosts creates layers. The present is never rubbed out but overlaid on the past: rupture is the tearing between the mother-child, siblings, (potential or realised) lovers, echoing the ruptures of slavery, transportations, indentureships, migrations and diaspora. A profoundly ambitious novel, Ghosts’ subject matter – narration, memory as a palimpsest and the haunting of the past — its passion for language, voice and the vernacular but also its modernist allegiances, call to mind Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved, even if doesn’t quite match her control. The transitions between free-indirect voice, first person, dialogue, storytelling, Jamaican patois, poetic speech, is dizzying but Forbes manages to express the lyricism of both Standard English and Jamaican Creole with consummate ease.