Review: The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts - Soraya Porter
Genre: Magical Realism
Published: Viper Publishing, March 2023
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
"See once upon a time there was a woman. And this woman conjured stories from ghosts and gave them to her daughters. This conjure woman's name was Beatrice. The daughters loved her stories, and when she died it was all that she left them. Little did they know that this book had a life before me. You see, I, Your Faithful Narrator, will always carry the burden of knowing how my stories will end."
Caribbean spiritual folklore meets a grounded multigenerational saga of a Jamaican-Trinidadian family, in this stellar debut by Soraya Palmer. Based on blurb, themes and genre, this quickly rose to the top of my Anticipated-releases of 2023 list, and I'm happy to say that it did not disappoint.
Our story starts with a omniscient, unnamed, and slightly mischievous narrator, recounting the tale of three generations of the Porter women. In modern day Brooklyn, sisters Zora and Sasha have been floating apart for years now; introverted, reticent Zora loses herself in her own mind and journals amidst her hopes of becoming a writer, whilst outgoing and tough-on-the-outside Sasha explores her gender-identity, sex and her first sapphic relationship. When their mothers recent cancer diagnosis brings the family together one final time, old secrets, stories and even ghosts passed through generations resurface, challenging old dynamics and strengthening new bonds.
Palmer seamlessly interweaves threads of classic folklore (Anansi, the Rolling Calf and the powerful ocean-deity Mama Dglo) with a modern narrative into a stunning web of layered tales. Fans of magical realism will be delighted by the small interjections of the speculative in the plot, but readers of more realistic fiction can still find a grounded and heartfelt family-tale with folkloric metaphors at the heart of it. Palmer covers a full spectrum of themes, including sisterhood, family-dynamics, sexuality, race, belonging and cycles of trauma. Yet, the theme of storytelling and myth is at the core of this book. From the actual folktales we tell our children, to the mythologization of our own history to make sense of our lives; each of these women is both a teller of stories, as a character in them. This includes our unreliable narrator, whom voice was one of the highlights of the book for me. No, the narrator is not actually "death personified", yet it still reminded me of the narrative voices of Mrs Death Misses Death and The Book Thief.
From a representation-perspective: there's much to love here as well. As far as I'm aware, most of it is based on the authors own experiences, and as far as my personal expertise goes: the cancer-representation was beautifully done. Especially near the end, I was deeply invested in the relationships of Beatrice and her daughters, and their final interactions with each other and their mothers ghosts genuinely choked me up for a moment.
Overall, I cannot recommend this book highly enough to any fan of Southern Gothic, haunting familial tales or a beautiful depiction of ghosts and storytelling in general.
Many thanks to Viper Publishing for providing me with an ARC of one of my most anticipated releases of the year. All opinions are my own.
You can find this book here on Goodreads.