Completed 6/4/2014, Reviewed 6/6/2014
I have quite a fondness for African and Caribbean mythic fiction. I think it’s because the author usually doesn’t assume the reader is familiar with the mythology. It’s been way too long since I’ve brushed up on my Greek and Roman mythology to catch and understand the references in books like “Dhalgren”. My Norse is weaker and don’t even mention Celtic or Meso-American. So Nalo Hopkinson’s first book was right up my alley. Filled with spirits, gods, herbs, and seers, “Brown Girl in the Ring” proved to be a satisfying and creepy romp through the Caribbean mythos.
The story takes place in the Toronto of the near future. The inner city has collapsed. The rich and middle class has left for the have on the suburbs. Blockades keep the remaining undesirables entering the ‘burbs. Ti-Jeanne, a young woman with a baby, lives with her Grandmother, Gros-Jeanne, who is the local healer for the transplanted Caribbean community. Ti-Jeanne begins having visions of spirits. Gros-Jeanne believes that she has the gift and that she must stay with her to learn to how to control her communications with the other side.
This mission is side-tracked by Tony, Ti-Jeanne’s former lover. He’s trying to escape from Rudy, the drug lord of Toronto who’s assigned him the task of killing someone for their heart for a transplant scheme. Gros-Jeanne grudgingly helps Tony attempt an escape, but it fails. Now the drug lord has plans to kill all three and it is up to Ti-Jeanne to accept and harness her gift to stop him.
“Brown Girl in the Ring” is a short, but powerful book. We are drawn into the world of the two Jeannes immediately with supernatural events and pidgin-English. At first it’s a little tough bouncing between the narration in standard English and the pidgin of the dialogue. But I quickly found the transitions painless and was quickly immersed in the action. And it doesn’t take long for the characters to come to life. Ti-Jeanne and Tony are the younger generation, bearing the cynicism of having grown up too quickly in the urban blight, while Gros-Jeanne holds on to the ways of the past.
Hopkinson uses a lot of detail to push you into the midst of all the magic. The transformation of Gros-Jeanne and Ti-Jeanne into the spirits that possess them is downright creepy. I found myself getting mad at Tony for fighting the reality of the magic with his cynical disbelief. I certainly had willingly suspended mine!
I loved this book. I was completely immersed in it. And for a debut novel, it was incredibly well-written. This kind of book makes you want to run back to the library and check out everything the author has written since. Five stars.