When my children were babies, a local movie theater had a program to show first run films to young parents. The theater kept the lights half up, and no one complained when someone’s kid started to fuss. The manager would come out before the movie and give us a spiel about the show. One day, he came out to do his thing, and seemed nervous. The films tended to be rom-coms and family-friendly comedies, so I couldn’t figure what his problem was. “This is a love story of sorts,” he said, shifting from foot to foot. The lights went down, and the movie came up.
It was Hotel Rwanda.
I think that hapless manager was trying to pitch the love between Paul Rusesabagina and his wife Sabena—who were Hutu and Tutsi, respectively, on opposite sides of the Rwandan genocide—as palliative to the horrors of the rest of the narrative. I remember sitting in the dark, holding my child tighter and tighter, shaken and humbled by the extremity of human experience—the hardness and hope, the terror and compassion. In this way, An Unkindness of Ghosts, the remarkable debut novel by Rivers Solomon, is also a love story of sorts. It details the hardest kinds of love there are, born out of lifetimes, of generations of degradation. Love is a ghost, something dead and cruel, and it hungers for the living, such as they are. Love is a murder mystery, an uncovering that will end with nothing but grief, which is how it began.
Aster is a motherless child aboard the generation ship Matilda, 300 years out into the void from our ruined Earth. The ship is run by a form of chattel slavery: the dark-skinned lowdeckers like Aster work on vast rotating plantations under the weak light of Baby, their engineered nuclear sun. Those on the low decks live lives of trauma, subject to the cruel vagaries of the white leaders and the upper deck guards, who mete out violence casually, personally, and all shades of interest in between. Ultimately, violence is violence; whether the whim of the moment or a personal vendetta, it hurts just the same. We first meet Aster when she is performing a foot amputation on a lowerdecker child. Someone—probably the Sovereign, their god-benighted ruler—has cut the heat to the lower decks, and the child has something like trench foot, the limb frozen and rotting. Aster is apprentice to the Surgeon General Theo Smith, despite her low status, and is learned in the skills of triage and make-do medicine.
When she is called by the Surgeon Theo for help to save the poisoned Sovereign, Aster is righteously defiant, and even more so when Theo insinuates she might be the one who poisoned him. Aster hates the Sovereign, as all the lowdeckers do—he is the exultant face of their oppression—but the line of succession puts an even crueler man, Theo’s uncle, into the role; Aster still hates the Sovereign, him being what he is, but there are nuances between one horrid man and the next, and the next horrid man hates her guts. As one ruler falls and the next is enshrined, the equilibrium of Aster and Theo’s lives, and the lives of all Matilda’s lower decks, are are violently upset, as the spectre of civil war appears on the artificial horizon.
Through it all, Aster has a strange and fraught relationship with Giselle, her somewhat sister. They share the antagonism and familiarity of siblings, both made by their traumas. Giselle is both mean and understanding, given to helping and hindering Aster’s various interests with the capriciousness of the broken. Aster’s mother Lune, who left her through suicide when Aster was just a baby, made it her life’s mission to study the Matilda, and all of its inner workings, and Aster’s lingering questions have the feel of a murder mystery: why did my mother leave me in this place? Aster doesn’t recognize emotions like her peers, and her plainspoken manner and confusion over nuance set her in trouble’s way more often than not. (Though it’s easy to find trouble in systematic cruelty, when a misunderstanding of the overt justification for violence is seen as something like resistance.)
The generation ship has long been a hothouse environment for genre writers, a place of extremity that doubles down on the notion of the security state and the locked society. There is no way out; everyone must play the hand they’re dealt. The Matilda transposes some of the ugliest social structures of human creation into a suffocating architecture of trauma, labeled by the alphabet, level-by-level. The Matilda, like any society, is made of ghosts, both living and dead, trapped in place and hurtling through darkness.