Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Brown Girl in The Ring: The Magic of Nalo Hopkinson

Brown Girl in the Ring
Nalo Hopkinson
Warner Aspect

Brown Girl in the Ring is a seamless blend of urban fantasy and Caribbean folklore, seasoned with an post-apocalyptic flavor. Nalo Hopkinson brings to life the magic, mystery, and fear surrounding voodoo, obeah, or simply a gift from god, as Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother calls it. Ti-Jeanne is a new mother trying to survive in a collapsed Toronto, Canada. The city has lost all government or reason, ruled by drug lords and street gangs, and Ti-Jeanne, along with her grandmother, Mami Gros-Jeanne and her new baby son, strives to survive in a battle against an evil man who uses powers stolen from the dead to wreak havoc as he pleases.

Mami has tried for years to teach Ti-Jeanne, and her mother, Mi-Jeanne, about the ways of Caribbean magic that she follows, and the old African gods that she calls to, but with no success. Mi-Jeanne was driven mad by the surge of visions she experienced just before the final riots and break down of Toronto, and left to never be seen again. When Ti-Jeanne begins to have similar visions, she tries to deny and shy away from her powers, wanting only to be with the man she loves and her new baby. But Mami knows that if Ti-Jeanne doesn’t learn to control her special sight, the sight will control her.

As this struggle goes on, Ti-Jeanne’s lover, Tony, is in his own predicament. Trapped in a world of drugs and violence, he wants merely to get by while scoring his next fix. The Posse he runs with is headed by a man named Rudy, a perpetually youthful and horribly powerful necromancer, using the power of the deaths he causes to rein over the broken landscape of the city. When an assistant for a politician from outside Toronto comes to Rudy asking for a human heart in order to transplant it and replace her own failing one, Rudy decides Tony is the perfect person for the job of procuring a “donor” willing or not.

A compelling mix of standard English and Caribbean cant, Brown Girl in the Ring takes the reader into a landscape of demons and gods, evil voodoo and powerful healing. The spell Hopkinson weaves throughout the story is ensnaring and fascinating. Ti-Jeanne is a young black woman at the beginning of motherhood, torn between her heritage and her desire, her son and her lover, her grandmother and her wish to live a normal life. At times stunningly smart and strong and beautiful, she is also capricious and willfully ignorant, making simple mistakes and ignoring the advice of her worldly grandmother.

The feelings she has towards her infant son are so true to life, and so very true of young mothers everywhere, a tender love and caring, yet so easily overwhelmed by his needs, to the point where she almost wishes the baby were gone forever. Ti-Jeanne is more concerned with making a life for herself and those she loves than for fighting battles against the forces of evil, or learning the strange and frightening rituals Mami practices. The changes and growing up she goes through as the story goes along are both heart wrenching and necessary.

The case of side characters is equally rich, with Mami at the head. She’s a brusque woman, at times rough and verbally harsh to Ti-Jeanne when she loses her patience, but able to charm even the most panicky street child into letting her set broken bones and heal wounds. She desperately wants to protect her little family, and mourns the loss of her only daughter, Mi-Jeanne, and the bitter betrayal she suffered many years ago. The love and respect she feels for the old gods is palpable, and it is truly she who brings them to life in the book.

There are times, especially at the beginning, when trying to read the dialect of Caribbean cant that Hopkinson writes the dialogue in gets difficult. But once you start to recognize the rhythm and flow of the words, the voices of the characters begin to come through loud and clear. This is a story of heritage, of going back to your roots, of family, and growing up, and love, with a big heavy dose of magic thrown in. The added lines from old poems and songs from the Caribbean and island cultures are also a great addition to the story. I highly recommend this story to anyone looking for something new and interesting, with strong female characters and a unique twist and flavor. Hopkinson delivers all this and more in Brown Girl in the Ring.
Bonnie Norman.I'm an English Major, a feminist, and a book lover. Sometimes a writer, too. I'm committed to being a voice for diversification and inclusion in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, as well as all books and the world at large.Check out Bonnie at A Working Title.


Summer said...

Great review! You really gave compelling reasons for why I should check this book out.

Nymeth said...

Fabulous review. I want to read this more than ever now.