Despite what its title suggests, Soraya Palmer’s debut novel, The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts, does not limit its focus to the title character. Instead, it encompasses the family she helped create. A mysteriously knowledgeable narrator fills in some of the gaps with information about Beatrice, and her husband Nigel, that is unknown to any of her three children. Additionally, her two eldest daughters, Sasha and Zora, tell us about their family and themselves from their own respective points of view. While the novel paints a thought-provoking picture of a family struggling under the strain of abuse, burgeoning identities, and persistent ghosts from their pasts, it leaves certain narrative stones unturned. In homage to the folktales that began in Africa, and took on new shapes in the Caribbean, Human Origins resists the expectation to linger over motivation, abandoning literary fiction’s “why” to spotlight Afro-Caribbean folklore’s “what.”
The power of storytelling immediately takes center stage in this novel, as we are welcomed by the aforementioned omniscient narrator. Sasha then takes up this torch, bookending her first chapter with myths told by her mother and father. Sasha’s first chapter introduces us to her sister Zora’s desire to be a writer, their father Nigel’s thunderous temper, and the arguments between their parents that often lead to physical abuse. Zora’s perspective follows, and we are given entry into her dreams and fantasies, the stories she tells herself about a boy she likes, and about God and the Devil.
Tales are told on every page, by every character, both aloud and in their minds, mostly functioning as a balm for the sisters, who often invoke the legends they learned in childhood during moments of tension or fear. A notable example of this takes place in one of their father’s favorite restaurants during a family trip to Jamaica, where Nigel is from. Beatrice holds her youngest child, Kayla, in her arms, attempting to soothe the hungry baby, and is threatened loudly by her husband, who has grown irritated by the noise. Everyone in the restaurant is aware, but mostly feign ignorance. Staff aside, the family of five are the only Black people present. As children of an abusive household are wont to do, Sasha and Zora attempt to diffuse the situation; they ask their father to tell them one of his stories as their mother leaves the table to quiet the baby. This situation is at the crux of one of the narrative’s central motifs: the family’s—but principally the father, Nigel’s—relationship to both whiteness and abuse.
In chapters chronicled by the third, enigmatic voice, we are shown formative moments in the lives of Beatrice and Nigel, both together and apart. We learn about Beatrice’s earlier experiences of abuse and isolation, Nigel’s fraught understanding of masculinity, and even get a peek at the far sunnier beginnings of their relationship. In the Western literary tradition, we typically learn that an abusive character has witnessed and/or fallen victim to extreme violence earlier in life. Though Nigel was sometimes called “a woman” by his father due to his sensitivity, and beaten with a belt as punishment in a fashion likely familiar to many Black readers, we are given no indication that Nigel’s father beat his wife or forced an atmosphere of dread upon his family in the way that Nigel eventually does. Which, of course, isn’t to say that one cannot develop violent tendencies for reasons other than growing up in a similar household. The greatest question mark surrounding Nigel’s behavior is that it does not extend to his relationship with the white woman with whom he cheats on Beatrice, and eventually marries. People who develop a habit of expressing their anger through acts of violence aren’t known to disengage easily from that practice. While he does display his temper in smaller ways in her presence (e.g., banging on the table with his fist), his frustration is always directed at one of his eldest daughters, not at his second wife.
We eventually learn that the woman he leaves Beatrice for is wealthy. Is this why he does not behave with her as he does with Beatrice and their daughters—because doing so would jeopardize his new lifestyle? Or is it because she immediately moves to gently quell his anger when she notices it, rather than asserting herself in the ways Beatrice did? This aspect of Nigel’s character remains up for debate in the novel. Neither Sasha nor Zora ever seems to expect their new stepmother to appear covered in bruises, or spend significant time ruminating on why their father speaks or behaves differently in his new life with her. Zora does wonder briefly whether her father’s mood has improved because he is away from her mother, but the novel does not grapple with this possibility. Nor do the daughters dwell, within their respective points of view, on their parents’ personalities as they themselves grow older, or directly connect what they have witnessed thus far to who they are becoming. Do Beatrice’s daughters mainly attribute Nigel’s violence to their mother’s tendency to “push people away”? Is this what readers are meant to surmise?
I found myself waiting for Sasha or Zora to impart one of those incisive truths that only third-party observers in their position would be privy to. I also counted on being encouraged by the text to reckon with said truths at length. However, these expectations result from a lifetime of outsized exposure to the type of storytelling Human Origins exists—at least, partially—in opposition to.
This novel is written in a style similar to that of the Afro-Caribbean folktales it contains. Fables, gods, and themes recur consistently, in hopes that characters and readers alike will remember them. However, like those legends, Palmer’s debut eschews much of the psychological theorizing literary fiction is known for in favor of a more straightforward accounting of events. This approach gestures towards another of the Afro-Caribbean folktale’s primary functions: to entertain. Filling more space on the page with probing analyses of each character’s actions and their implications, however fascinating, would be somewhat contrary to an oral tradition in which painting a lively picture of what happens, thereby stamping events firmly in your listener’s mind, is far more important than analyzing why the events of the story took place as they did. More than anything, the Afro-Caribbean folktale is concerned with consequences: those that befall the characters, and those that could befall the listener.
What does set this novel apart from its folkloric inspiration is that it forgoes concrete moral takeaways, leaving the listener with an array of ingredients from which to make meaning, but no hard and fast recipe. In this way, the book floats between Afro-Caribbean and European modes of storytelling, presenting events to learn from without nudging each character’s specific takeaways to the forefront. If you’re used to being guided through a character’s emotional growth by an author, it might be slightly maddening to contend with the fountain of possibilities Palmer leaves you to ponder on your own. But upon consideration of the tradition she is working within, you may well appreciate being given the choice to either wrestle with the novel’s unanswered questions, or simply enjoy its telling.
I found plenty of fodder for speculation. Is Sasha’s instinct to take after her father, whose statements and life reflect a mental dichotomy equating Black women with difficulty? Does Beatrice stay with Nigel after the first time he strikes her because she believes she deserves it, and is this why she is unafraid to provoke him? How did Nigel’s transition into violence unfold? What does Zora take away from the romantic relationships modeled to her by her parents as she grows up, or from her sister’s tendency to self-destruct? Human Origins vividly conveys a multitude of profound emotional experiences that exist as squares of fabric: some are already joined by the bold seam of cause and effect, while others exist separately but for the thread of inference. With this debut, the author invites us to view long-held traditions in storytelling anew, and to meditate on why they endure. Troubling subjects and compelling questions abound. Nevertheless, much like those who have recounted the lore of Anansi and the rolling calf through the ages, Palmer trusts the capacity of the narrative to bear the weight of all things said and unsaid.
The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts
By Soraya Palmer
Published March 28, 2023