Booking It: ‘An Unkindness of Ghosts’ Part I
(Emily Dembinski/Daily Bruin)
By Kristin Snyder
July 27, 2020 5:32 p.m.
Kristin Snyder: I’m Kristin Snyder.
Paige Hua: And I’m Paige Hua, and this is Daily Bruin Arts and Entertainment’s newest series “Booking It.”
Kristin Snyder: Here on “Booking It,” Paige and I will be flexing our abilities as English majors to discuss a book of our choosing. With two episodes dedicated to each book, a few guests will join us in analyzing each half of the novel. For our first book pick, we chose “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon, which follows Aster, who lives on the lower decks of a spaceship called the Matilda, which is organized much like the antebellum South. And throughout the novel, she is investigating what she originally presumed to be her mother’s suicide, but she soon finds out that there might be more to the story than she once believed. Does that sound like a fair summary?
PH: Yeah. And just for content warning, this book does deal with things like sexual assault, suicide and abortion.
Kristin Snyder: For this first book, Paige and I will be joined by two guests. So let’s let them introduce themselves.
Brooke Cuzick: I’m Brooke Cuzick. I was previously the Music | fine arts editor and currently I am Arts senior staff.
Kaia Sherry: Hi, my name is Kaia Sherry and I’m the former Lifestyle editor.
Kristin Snyder: How about we just start by going around and saying our favorite things about this read?
PH: Definitely. I can start. Something that really intrigued me about this read was it felt really exciting and that each chapter was constantly pushing toward a larger payoff. We only read the first half for this episode, so I’m excited to see where the second half leads.
BC: I really liked how the book kind of unpacks Aster’s personality and how it kind of reveals it a little bit slowly, so the build up is kind of slow, but already within the first half, I can tell that she’s really standing up against the larger power sources in the novel, which is kind of refreshing to see in a lead character.
Kaia Sherry: OK, this is gonna start off sounding negative, but I promise it’ll turn positive. But when I first read the synopsis, and the concept of the book, I thought that the entire idea of upper deck versus lower deck being divided into colors was a little simplistic and maybe a little bit on the nose in terms of dealing with such a complex topic like race relations and systemic racism. But I feel like the book does a really good job taking that concept and sort of adding all these different sci-fi aspects and different social groups and interactions that sort of flesh it out a lot more and make it a lot more nuanced. … It could have been handled in a little bit more simplistic way, but I appreciate that the book is becoming really complex and layered.
Kristin Snyder: I personally really enjoy the fact that Aster is not explicitly but I think there’s a lot of implicit suggestions that she’s not a neurotypical character. And I think a lot of fiction usually pose it as a negative thing with different challenges that they have to work around. But in this case, things that separate Aster from the other people in her world are what made her really good at her job as a surgeon and really good as a chemist. So instead of it being presented as a negative thing, it’s very much like she might not be like the other people in her cabin, or like her friends, like Giselle and Theo, but that she very much has a hold of her own in her own personality. But one thing that I personally found difficult, at least about this first half of the book, was that for the first hundred pages or so it was kind of difficult to get ahold of the plot and really follow what was going on because I think there was a lot of world building that obviously has to happen in a sci-fi novel. And I think in this case, it was difficult for the author to create a balance between introducing the characters, introducing the plot and also balancing that with creating this huge spaceship with its own rules.
BC: Yeah, I agree. I think the build-up is kind of slow and a little bit difficult to follow in places just because I feel like there are kind of a lot of different conflicts that this story tries to deal with. Because obviously, there’s Aster trying to figure out the kind of mystery that’s shrouded around the past of her mother. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the death of the Sovereign too, which kind of comes in the latter part of the first half of the book. So I feel like in trying to unpack all these things, I think it will pay off well in the second half of the book, but in the first half, it’s just kind of a lot to take in as a reader and prioritize.
PH: Yeah, it just feels like there needs to be more exposition, which is something that isn’t what I normally say for a novel, but to shove so much in the first 150 or so pages can get really dense, and it feels like it just needed a little bit more space to break things down and explain sort of the rules of the game and where we are in the setting so it doesn’t feel like the characters are jumping around from place to place.
Kristin Snyder: Yeah, I felt like, and again, I don’t typically say this with books, but I think in this case it would be better if we got more of a history of how Matilda was established and how it led to this point, and I don’t need a full encyclopedia history. But I think it would be helpful to be like, “OK, here’s its beginning. Here it is now just you can have a bit of historical context within the novel.”
BC: I feel like the author tries to do that because they did put kind of like, there’s subtle hints toward history, but it’s so focused on the main present points of the plot that, like you guys said, there isn’t a lot of space to capitalize on the history that got us there as readers.
Kaia Sherry: Yeah, I feel like as a result of that it ends up feeling more like sort of a series of vignettes instead of a cohesive narrative. And I don’t know, I feel like there are glimpses of that history, especially when it starts to talk about the religion and how that informs the hierarchies of the ship. But I feel like Solomon could have spent a bit more time fleshing that out a bit more.
PH: But I feel like even though the author maybe could have spent a bit more time delving into the history of the background, they did a really good job exploring the elements of gender with each character and how even though the mentions of their gender identity wasn’t head on, you can sort of piece it together from the dialogue, which I felt was more powerful than if they tried to say it on the nose. They also said something about, I can’t remember exactly it was like, the people in the lower decks kind of refer to each other as “they” while the upper decks like to implement gender binaries onto them.
Kaia Sherry: I think it was like specifically children were referred to as “they,” and then like, I’m not sure what happens like when they grew up, but I feel like that like goes hand in hand with the novel sort of confusing this idea of gender and showing that it is a social construct, and it is arbitrary. And it does that through language, but also through confusing the physicality and Theo’s beard, aspects like that. From what I remember, at the beginning, they sort of established that on Flick’s level, children specifically use “they” pronouns and I think “she” pronouns as they became adults. And then that sort of varies between the upper decks and lower decks. And I think it was heavily implied that the upper decks had more, I guess, traditional restrictive gender roles with “he” and “she,” as opposed to the lower decks.
Kristin Snyder: I think we see this with Theo who doesn’t have a beard, but other men on his part of the ship have really thick beards, and they’re really proud of that as a symbol of his manhood. And him not having a beard is a point of contention between him and his really influential uncle who doesn’t like that he presents as more feminine. So I think that it was a really interesting way for Solomon to establish what the gender norm of the area was by having this one character who drifts away from that and the consequences of it.
PH: Yeah, I think it does. And I think it goes to show how Solomon can sort of expertly craft characters to sort of send this message that heteronormativity is something very much imposed upon us as readers in America by white culture. And I think one thing this book makes abundantly clear is how up lower and upper deckers are different culturally. And it seems that Solomon really put sort of a microscope on how these cultural differences are really how these two sort of societies conflict, but that they’re all sort of social constructs and not really anything solid or physical.
Kaia Sherry: I think that’s also reflected in the way that names are handled in the novel, because Theo’s name is originally Sedvar, but he chooses a different name because he feels that name doesn’t reflect him as a person. And I think Sedvar means merciless and war or something, which is completely opposed to what his personality is. So he changes it to Theo, which means “gift to god,” which I also think is really interesting, because Lieutenant literally sees himself as a god. So the name that Theo chooses for himself sort of places himself in direct opposition to that and those characteristics.
Kristin Snyder: So I think there’s the overarching analogy of the ship reflecting America’s racial hierarchy, but then none of the characters seem stilted or like completely defined by the different analogies and symbols that they’re living within which I think shows how, even though I was kind of confused by the plot at points, I think the characters made it worth it because they were super intriguing on their own. And then no two characters were too similar at but none of them felt completely boxed in by what they were supposed to represent.
PH: Yeah, it’s like the names were meant for us as readers to associate with other things rather than them being defined by their names, which is such a huge message since it’s like the characters in the novel are choosing their names at times.
Kristin Snyder: What does Aster mean? It’s in the daisy family.
BC: I think that’s interesting because I feel like flowers can normally be a symbol of femininity. But I think that part of what makes Aster such an interesting character is that she kind of rejects that at times and values kind of her passions more than that. That might not be the right way to say that. But she has such an interest in being the healer and being a chemist and stuff like that it’s not necessarily – like doesn’t she actually have her uterus cut out as well? Because she, yeah, so I think that that makes her a really dynamic character because it’s kind of another instance of names not defining who a person is, and kind of their actions and how they choose to live their lives kind of defines it more than that.
Kristin Snyder: Well, it’s also interesting because according to Google – so take this with a grain of salt because this is just the Google definition of the word – but the specific plant that is the aster is typically pink or purple. Typically in American society representative of femininity and girlhood and things like that. It’s super interesting because for Aster, gender doesn’t seem to be a personal thing at all. It’s kind of like, she exists in a body but her gender isn’t a topic of concern for her. At the same time, she is very cognizant of it as a societal issue. And especially, there’s one point where, let me pull up a quote I had written down. She’s mentioning how the guards in the lower decks treat the women. And there’s a lot of fairly graphic scenes throughout the book. But at this one moment, she comments that even though the guards rarely killed a woman, they were “experts at toeing that line.” Even though like she personally doesn’t care about her gender, she’s so aware of how other people care about her gender and how other people will use that as a means of inflicting violence upon her, and I think Solomon explores this concept of institutionalized violence against women throughout the first half of the novel pretty in depth.
PH: Yeah, it was such a heartbreaking moment for me to read when she was in bed rubbing ointment between her legs and people thought she was masturbating. But really she was trying to protect herself from the pain of being raped. And that was just such a powerful couple pages for me. It brought chills.
Kristin Snyder: Yeah, I think what made that scene so hard hitting was the fact that she was so nonchalant about she’s like, “Oh, this is just something that I have to do.” And then other people make comments about it as a means for them to explain it within the narrative. But the fact that she was just like, “OK, I do this thing, and it’s kind of an inconvenience at times, but I have to do it.” I think that’s what really drove that point home.
Kaia Sherry: To jump off at that point, I feel like that scene is just so awful just because of how normalized it all is for them, which is something you guys have been saying. And also I feel like, jumping off of my own point, I guess the way appearance, outward appearance, ties to that because there’s that scene with Giselle where Aster accidentally punches her face. And she’s like, “Appearance is really important because you’re pretty and that helps you get favor with men.” And again, that’s something that’s normalized. If you’re pretty then you can use that, I guess. But I don’t know. I guess it has to all tie in with the way that people present. It affects the way that people treat you and the way that people perceive you.
BC: Well, if I’m remembering right, there’s also kind of like a rejection of that, right? Because doesn’t Giselle say something along the lines of, “Even if I do have scars on my face, I’m still beautiful,” or did I make that up? I feel like I didn’t.
Kaia Sherry: I feel like Giselle definitely tries to reject the boxes that people try to put around her, you know. And that’s a really great example of that.
Kristin Snyder: While we’re talking about appearance, there was a scene pretty early on when Theo is first introduced as the Surgeon, and they’re talking about how he is part Black but he’s light skinned enough where people can like, this isn’t a direct quote, but they can kind of overlook that and let him just be be good at being a surgeon. And then later we see Aster working as a surgeon on the upper decks – she can only do so when she’s with Theo because she has darker skin. So that just goes to show how much on top of gender issues how much your race and the color of your skin can go on to impact how society views you.
BC: Well, yeah, because even he says, if I’m not wrong, that he views her as being more intellectually and surgically gifted than he is. So that just proves that point further. What do you guys think about their kind of relationship that’s forming? Do you guys have thoughts on it?
Kristin Snyder: I think it’s interesting. At first, I thought it was just super one-sided on Aster’s end until we got Theo’s perspective, which I was like, “Oh, like he’s in love with her.” But it’s interesting how you don’t really view that at all from Aster’s perspective. I’m not really sure what that means.
PH: It’s like refreshing two-fold in the sense that neither of their attraction is based on their appearances. You rarely find mention of that. And it’s totally based on how he sees her as a surgeon and how she sees him as a surgeon and as a person, as well. But then on the flip side, it’s equally refreshing to see a romance – I don’t even know if I want to call it that – or friendship blossoming on the foundation that they’re friends. I feel like in so many other forms of media you see the angst between two lovers, but they don’t even go through the friendship phase first, they just jump right into bed and it’s nice to see two characters being compatible on the level of friendship first.
BC: Yeah, I feel like that was kind of a turning point in the book for me and maybe it’s just because, I don’t know, I’m a sucker for when two characters finally converge and suddenly have a really close relationship. But I also really liked that part where she’s just like, “Well, are we acquaintances?” Like nondirect quote, “Are we acquaintances? Or are we friends, because if we’re just acquaintances, I wouldn’t spend as much time as I do, caring for you.” And I think she makes him some sort of medication or something I can’t fully remember but because, “If we’re just acquaintances, I’m not gonna do that for you, but if we’re friends, obviously I care for you, and I would take that time,” and after that, I was like, “Oh, my God, wait, I thought that y’all were just coworkers.” It’s interesting because yeah, it’s just another part of them breaking down stereotypes because Theo, a lot of times, just seems really removed. I think there’s a part too where it kind of unpacks whether that’s their society’s kind of pressures on him to not be so close with her. And kind of how he restricts himself like he’s like, “Oh, no, we cannot share a bed because that is against these unspoken rules.” But yeah, it’s an interesting kind of flip on stereotypes.
Kristin Snyder: We’re going to finish up on that note. Tune in next time to “Booking It” as we wrap up our discussion of “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon and announce our next read. You can tweet any comments, questions or observations @DailyBruinAE or email them to [email protected]