Jumpdrives & Cantrips

Brown Girl in the Ring
February 7, 2008, 1222
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Brown Girl in the RingBack in 1998, Nalo Hopkinson frantically wrote Brown Girl in the Ring after winning Warner Aspect’s best first novel contest by submitting the first 3 (and only) chapters of the book. It has taken me nearly 10 years to get around to reading her first book, and for some reason I was determined to read her first book first even though I could never seem to find it in stores. Since it is one of the five books selected for the CBC’s Canada Reads 2008 I finally got my hands on it with the new reprint. I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

In this world, Toronto’s inner city is a wasteland of urban ruin, barricaded from the wealthy suburbs. Full of poverty and violence, the inner city has fallen under gang rule and Ti-Jeanne is stuck in the midst of it. The story centres on Ti-Jeanne and four generations of her family: from her grandmother, a healer and “servant of the spirits,” to Ti-Jeanne’s own baby. Ti-Jeanne must reconcile with her own unwanted powers, those of seeing death, before her visions drive her insane and to her own death, as her mother before her. Not to mention Tony, the baby’s unknowing father, wants back in Ti-Jeanne’s life despite being a drug addict and member of the ruling gang–which requires Tony to harvest a new heart for a politician from the ‘burbs.

Then the action gets going.

The flavour of the book is distinctively Caribbean, with characters often speaking in a patois that takes some time to fully adjust to. The story is steeped in Caribbean folklore, with zombies, possession, and duppies, which are spirits held in thrall. It makes for fascinating reading; after a while the usual replayed European myths in fantasy (please see most works derivative of Tolkien) get tiresome, no matter how well written they are. In the last ten years there has been more of a movement to look at other traditions, and I imagine that this book was probably one of the spurs to do so.

The portrayal of relationships is deft, and sparsely written in places. In a few sentences it is easy to observe the history between Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother without a full exposition. There is also nice rhythm in the book, which lends it a poetic bent at times. However, the actual back story of the world is almost given in point form, and seems all too simplistic with some questionable logic and economics compared to other fantastical worlds. While the world itself ideally should have been fleshed-out more, the concern of the characters is more to the day-to-day and not the systemic level of their existence.

This really is a story of healing across the generations, and rebuilding the relationships of a family damaged from within. The characters begin in places of conflict and emotional isolation, but by the end of the book are bound together by their choices. If you’re looking to read for serious themes, it’s easy to see how Brown Girl in the Ring can speak to a post-colonial diaspora, and the rebuilding that takes place in a socio-political sense over time. Of course, if you’re looking for a good story, that’s there too. Which is really the beauty of the novel; how deeply you want to read it is up to you.

Hopkinson excels in making the extraordinary the ordinary, embedding magic and spirits into the concrete and grime of the city the characters reside in. To an extent, her writing brings to mind a spicier Charles de Lint. This is a book that deserves to be one of the Canada Reads selections, and I for one hope that it pulls ahead for the win.

Hopkinson, Nalo. Brown Girl in the Ring. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1998. 250 pages. $15.95 (Canadian).


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