Reviewed by Jordan Rouseau
Beatrice Porter possesses magical powers. At least, that is what her daughters, Sasha and Zora, want to believe. But as cracks within their household’s structure deepen and split the family apart, the girls are left to wonder if their parents’ tales about possessed calves and story-telling spiders are more myth than magic. In her debut novel, Soraya Palmer shifts primarily between the perspectives of Sasha, Zora, and a mythical spider to weave the complex narrative of a Caribbean-American family.
As can be expected from a story with such a synopsis, The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts is anything but simple. Consequently, Palmer’s work is not easily confined to a single literary tradition since it combines elements of magical realism and Caribbean and West African folklore. Palmer weaves the narratives of a rich cast of Caribbean and West African folklore characters like Mama Dglo, Anansi, the Rolling Calf, and Anacaona into each family member’s stories to tether the family to their roots in Trinidad and Jamaica. In this way, the reader receives a story within a story within a story, inviting them to follow the varying narrators down the rabbit hole of a dysfunctional family living in Brooklyn, New York.
Anansi the spider is a god of storytelling. Like any spider web, this story starts at the center and branches out to become more complex and layered as Anansi develops the stories of the whole family. The narrative begins in 1997 Brooklyn with sisters Sasha and Zora living with their Carribean-born parents, Beatrice and Nigel. The sisters are raised to love and revere their parents’ stories of the Rolling Calf and Anansi, who they use to share pieces of their own lives
and valuable lessons with their daughters. However, as problems emerge and tear the family apart, the young girls are left to strike out and create their own stories. While Sasha distances herself to explore her sexuality and gender identity, Zora turns to storytelling to unite the family the best way she knows how. But when Beatrice’s worsening health leads to drastic changes, there seems to be little hope in the magic of stories.
The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts reveals how much stories truly matter by unpeeling the layers of a Caribbean household, one family member at a time. Palmer manages to artfully explore the myriad and intersectional identities of several characters, from Sasha grappling with gender identity to Beatrice’s suppressed sexual identity. The novel confronts hard-hitting themes like domestic violence, death, and mental health head-on to develop each character in the most vulnerable and honest way possible. Through the dark twists and turns the story takes, the reader comes to realize how Beatrice and Nigel’s origin stories shape the type of people they have become by the time the novel begins in 1997, and how their stories influence Sasha and Zora’s. Despite how isolated the Porters feel from each other as they each strive to construct their own narratives independently, Anansi’s web shows readers how inextricably connected the family is, for better or for worse. Following this vulnerable story, readers cannot help but consider their own familial relationships and the ways in which they are tethered to their origins.
The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts is again, not a simple story. Palmer recognizes that all people are products of a story, complicated and intertwining with other stories. Instead of simplicity, she offers readers the opportunity to see humanity developed gorgeously in less than three hundred pages. By the end of the novel, readers are left
with a deep sense of satisfaction and the understanding that all happy endings are crafted by the storyteller, you.