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  • Writer's pictureHardcover Hearts

Right book, wrong format?

I just finished this book, These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card, and I wonder if I made a mistake. Did I pick the wrong format for this book?

Whenever I read a book with colloquial dialect or another form of dialogue that would be enhanced by audio format, I will seek that out from my public library. I did that with These Ghosts Are Family.

The first time I employed this technique, was after hitting a wall with Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings, and it was a game changer. The characters stood out more clearly, and the richness of the language, with its rhythms and unfamiliar pronunciations, was a joy to hear. I was able to enter that world that I had previously been struggling with, and losing, to be honest.

The narration of These Ghosts Are Family was fantastic, done by Karl O'Brien Williams, who did a remarkable job with the timbre of his voice, the differentiation of the varied characters and the performance overall. So the problem wasn't with that. Maybe there are some books that structurally aren't best experienced via different formats?

I was chatting with my dear friend, Leo, about this, specifically regarding his renewed dislike of his Kindle. He said something that resonated with me- that it's "all the same" when you read a book with a kindle. When you close it, you don't see the cover. You can't peek ahead to see how many more pages to the beginning of the next chapter. You can't feel the texture of the pages, or smell the book, and all that adds up to an impersonal reading experience. That conversation made me start to think about formats more deeply.

So when it came to my thinking about how I would rate this book, I couldn't ignore the fact that I think the audio format didn't let me engage with this book in the best way. This book is complex. The structure is intricate, but you don't know that going into the book, especially if you go into a book like I do, without knowing much about it. As an example, there is a diagram of the family tree that precedes the story as the chapters and sections bounce forward and backward in time. It makes engaging with the material challenging when it is read to you without the visual grounding of that family tree or chapter anchors.

The writing was very solid. The characters were rich and the sections that made up a branch or part of the story were wonderful. A challenge with these types of multiple character stories is that some of the arcs naturally resonate more deeply than others do. That did happen for me with this book, but it was saved by flipping into another or a new storyline fairly quickly. We didn't overstay our welcome in any one character's section- and that was both good and bad.

The book opens with an old man, Abel, who has arranged for a new homecare provider to be assigned. He has asked for a specific woman- not because of her skills as a nurse, but because he is her father and by arranging this meeting, he will be returning from the dead. He has a secret that he doesn't want to be burdened by anymore and that is that when he was on a trip for his work decades earlier, when this now middle aged woman was a small child, his travel companion/friend was killed in an accident and his name was mistakenly attributed to the dead man. Abel saw an opportunity in the moment to escape his life and reinvent himself, so he took it.

It was the kind of opening to a book that I love- a surprising set up. I was immediately hooked. I asked myself if this was a male version of Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn, with a Jamaican father character who abandons his family for a new life abroad? I was so impressed by that book and was excited to see if this would be the case. The parallels were strong, but this book branched out along that family tree quickly, and we didn't spend as much of a focus on that character for my theory to pan out.

The sections of These Ghosts Are Family were very well told, the characters interesting and dynamic, and the settings rich. The themes of regret and loss appeared in the form of ghosts who pepper the stories in interesting ways. The impacts of slavery on this family is never that far removed, regardless of the time and distance from the last enslaved member of their lineage. It's a powerful and inventive novel.

Speaking of ghosts, I think I will be haunted by the question that nags at me- would I have liked the book more, or connected with it more deeply if I had read and not listened to the audiobook edition? As such, it was fine, but I suspect that there were more layers to enjoy that I missed in the listening.

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