Jumpdrives & Cantrips


A Small and Remarkable Life

A Small and Remarkable LifeI usually don’t like human meets alien or alien meets human stories. Why? Because first contact novels tend to be repetitive: there are only so many ultimate outcomes from someone meeting a different species. So it is all the more impressive that A Small and Remarkable Life puts a different perspective on this type of story. Nick DiChario works more with the emotional context of the characters and provokes a sense of alienation, rather than dwelling on differences alone.

DiChario has a literary tang to his mellow writing, which is rich with allusion and symbolism despite its simple prose. Themes of faith and belief weave together throughout the book, and being that the story is set in mid-nineteenth century America, this means Christianity figures heavily in it. Time-wise, it’s around the time of the American Civil War, a time when racial issues were prime concern. This serves to highlight some of the self vs. other conflict that surrounds what we categorise as alien.

The story switches between two main characters, Tink Puddah and Jacob Piersol, jumping between different points in time. The book’s structure tends toward the non-linear–Tink’s birth and funeral are both at the beginning of the book, and what may seem to be spoilers in the following paragraphs are not. Tink is born malformed and early after the brutal death of his parents, newly arrived and adapted to life on Earth. His blue skin, fragility, and odd looks set him apart, though less so than his aversion to violence and disbelief in God. This disbelief is the root of conflict between him and the preacher from the valley he later settles in, Jacob, who is so determined to serve his congregation that it segregates him from them.

The story of A Small and Remarkable Life really comes from the characters, more so than anything else. Their lives and beliefs form a dialogue, leading them both eventually towards death and resurrection. Tink and Jacob serve to contrast beliefs about God and mercy, as well as what constitutes an act of good (or an act of God, in some cases). They also serve to show two different manners of alienation–particularly that of the outsider looking in, but also the estrangement one can feel in divisive social situations. DiChario uses the story as a lens to question the construction of what is alien, and acceptance of it, or lack thereof. The sense of alienation cultivated throughout also serves to distance the reader from the story itself–I personally found this fascinating, but other readers may feel, er, alienated by it.

DiChario manages to compress a large amount of information into this novel, which deserves unpacking of a literary sort. However, I suspect that some parts could have stood to fleshed out, most notably the revelation of Tink’s murderer. This moment didn’t feel right to me–not who it was, but rather the “final reveal” portrayed it almost as a deus ex machina, though it wasn’t. This particular moment in the book also happened to stretch out over three chapters–a massive variation in pace to the rest of the book, making it feel forced to an extent.

Regardless, Nick DiChario certainly impressed me with the deft portrayals and layered meaning in Tink’s story. A Small and Remarkable Life is the kind of book that stays with you for a while, and makes you think about things. That’s an impressive feat that leaves me looking forward to DiChario’s next release, upcoming this May.

DiChario, Nick. A Small and Remarkable Life. Calgary: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006. 238 pages. $19.95 (Canadian).

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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).