Monday, 6 June 2016

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

I sat down to read Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring because it is on a CBC Books List of 100 Novels That Make You Proud To Be A Canadian. I'm working my way through it, slowly, although it is annoying that it skews so heavily towards the recent. And there are certain other themes that I am less than happy about.

However, that is a story for another review, because Brown Girl in the Ring does not fit into those troublesome themes. It is an urban fantasy set in a Toronto that has been abandoned by the powers that be, as the city government moved out to the 'burbs, and the police abandoned the city. People still live there, and society has shrunk in population, but not necessarily in connection.

The main character, Ti-Jeanne, lives with her grandmother and her new baby, on the experimental farm in Toronto, where her grandmother is a local wise woman, dispensing herbal medicine, since allopathic medicine is not available within Toronto itself. Ti-Jeanne's mother left her at a young age, and the father of her child is not someone she thinks would be able to take on being a father.

The magic in this book is largely through Afro-Caribbean sources, the idea of being ridden by spirits or Gods, being chosen by one in particular, and carrying their gifts. Count Zero by William Gibson does much the same things with computers, but I prefer Hopkinson's version, because it feels like it comes from a deeper familiarity with the source material, but even more so because there is a deep tactileness that Gibson lacks.

Because the loa in Count Zero are virtual, they are interesting, but not as connected to the world around them, whereas here is a very strong sense of touch, of feel, of presence and materiality to the world of Ti-Jeanne, and her first tentative steps into the world of the supernatural.

The world of Toronto walks carefully around the power of crime boss Rudy, an older man with access to his own supernatural forces. Here we get into the creation and exploitation of zombies, along with a bowl full of very bad magic indeed.

Into this intrudes the wider world, which is still technological in ways Toronto itself can no longer be. The prime minister (or premier? I forget) needs a new heart, and all hearts these days come from pigs. As a re-election strategy, she announces she'll only take a human heart, an effort to reintroduce organ donation. Of course, when a heart is not forthcoming easily from a human, her campaign manager hires Rudy to make sure a suitable heart, with a suitable blood type, and a suitable death becomes miraculously available in time.

Rudy goes to Ti-Jeanne's former lover to perform this task, and so we come full circle. It's a book about betrayal, supernatural forces, and unexpected connections and family where you least expect it.

I can't say this is the best book I've read in a while, but it certainly is a solid one. The tangibility of the prose, the integration of fantasy into a Toronto that is still recognizable despite the changes, the signs of a world trying to find its own rules when law has left, it's all very well done. Ti-Jeanne herself is a complex, sometimes frustrating main character, trying to figure out what having a baby means, what love means, what family means, and why she keeps dreaming of death.

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