The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter, and Other Essential Ghosts
“I don’t mean to alarm you,” declares Soraya Palmer’s free-floating narrator, something like a ghost with multiple personalities, “but … as you’re reading this, the blood from all of my bodies is soaking up the pages… My tongue is being stapled to the shiny pages…” Nightmare stuff, even for a novel that sets more than a few demons loose, in particular a horde of fiendish spiders. Nevertheless, this “alarm” is raised after readers have come to understand who’s the actual narrator, or editor, or anthologist. Whatever, she’s a Brooklyn girl named for a novelist: Zora. The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, whose home is on the ragged fringes of Prospect Park, the younger Porter sister negotiates, over the course of the novel, the tricky stretch between tween and late-teen. She manages this, what’s more, with tongue unstapled and no excess bleeding. Her story may digress into a Monsters’ Ball, as well as into other points of view, but it’s fundamentally familiar: a coming-of-age.
Zora’s initiations are complicated, above all, by the resources and agonies inherent to “the new mosaic American family.” Such turmoil has also grown familiar, in American fiction generally and especially that of New York’s outer boroughs. In Zora’s case, the family budget is in tatters, and so too are the feelings between Mom and Dad, shredded by the challenges of their adopted culture. Yet Zora’s struggle for selfhood, adulthood, while never glossing things over, finds an unlikely means of escape, or at least temporary release. The stories her parents tell—fables out of their own, very different upbringings—can, for instance, provide a daffy distraction at the grocery register when Dad’s card is declined, and more than help to open and exercise a young mind.
The father, the Jamaican Nigel, recalls a red-eyed calf’s head, severed but undying, that wrought destruction back in Discovery Bay. The “Trini” mother, the title’s Beatrice, speaks of the Obeah, part incubus and part healer, and she adopts its Arima rituals. Then there’s Anansi the spider, a myth out of Africa, which turns up in the tales of both parents⎯ both well aware of their slave heritage. The talk offers an alternative world, and from the first it’s enriching, enlivening. But then, how’s it supposed to help a girl when she’s just gotten her first kiss, in the school’s broom closet?
Happily, Zora enjoys another resource, namely her sister Sasha. The sibling has put in a couple more years on the local streets and playgrounds, and she has a head for numbers that may earn her a college scholarship. Still, like Zora, she’s making fitful progress towards maturity, and this is tracked in the chapters in Sasha’s perspective, which alternate with Zora’s for much of the text’s present action. As the younger sister allows a boy to lure her into the closet, the older sneaks into their apartment while the folks are at work, tugging along a girlfriend. Sasha’s unsettled coming-out proves one of the novel’s finest sustained dramas, balanced nicely between Mom’s threats with the “cocoyea broom” (her homeland’s preferred tool for a whupping) and a prickly but profound cross-cultural acceptance. Similarly, as the parents fall apart, their most violent episode is largely a food fight, and then modulates, after Dad has run off to his eventual second wife, into a moment of sauce-stained tenderness. The sisters and their mother comfort each other by inventing fresh adventures for Anansi: “The forest became still and quiet, and all the laughter in the world stopped for an entire moment to honor Anansi. The spider had now outsmarted both Snake and Tiger.”
The natural predator to the ordinary is the extraordinary, whether it’s migrant patois or a youngster’s non-standard bedmate, and delivering the extraordinary emerges as the core triumph of (deep breath) The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter, and Other Essential Ghosts. Indeed, that title conceals one odd twist inside another, given the name at its center. Beatrix Potter of course is the woman who gave the world Peter Rabbit, yet neither she nor her critters draw mention in Soraya Palmer’s text. Rather, her homonymous protagonist is herself the gifted storyteller, with a menagerie likewise enchanting⎯in both senses of the word.
Beatrice’s inventions, it seemed to me, didn’t adequately address the systemic inequalities of all the former slave-holding nations. Those have no small bearing on the Porters’s quandaries, after all. Nonetheless, I was won over by how the family eventually rejected the US altogether. In another narrative screwball that cuts right through the strike zone, challenges of both serious illness and sexual identity are handled by magic means, amid the humid colors of Trinidad.
The mother returns to her “human origin” in the final episodes, riddled with cancer and given the brush-off by American bean-counters. The scenes at the Brooklyn clinic are all too familiar, but when the sisters follow Mom back to Trinidad, things turn more fantastic. Palmer is careful to keep playing the surreal against the real⎯ there’s an edgy encounter in an island gay bar, for instance⎯but by then we’ve grown used to the Calibans amid the dramatis personae. So too, in another of the story’s contrapuntal effects, we spend whole chapters among the haunts of first Dad’s, then Mom’s childhoods.
Father Nigel’s matter most for the overall drama, since he’s the story’s obvious villain, even leaving Beatrice for a white woman with money. Happily, the man is fleshed out by his flashback, which reveals how homosexuality runs in the family, as well as a literary bent. Nigel was drawn to New York, it turns out, in part because he loved Bartleby⎯ but unlike Melville’s man, the father manages to articulate his feelings and repair broken connections. Still, the closing scenes are the mother’s, and peopled by chimeras of the Caribbean. Indeed, the essential healing spell may be cast by a creature some would call a revenant: “Mothers never die,” she declares, “children love to resurrect us in they stories.”