Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

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Nalo Hopkinson is one of the names I saw during the Racefail ugliness, and then forgot about until I went looking again this summer, when her name just kept coming up. Probably because she’s awesome. This was her first novel, and it won a bunch of first-novel and new-writer awards. It’s the only one of hers I’ve read so far, but I’ve just checked Midnight Robber out of the library.

Brown Girl in the Ring is set in a post-economic collapse Toronto, the kind of dystopian-ish near future that is fairly standard in post-Cold War science fiction. While this larger setting and the story about how Hopkinson’s Toronto came to be this way was not entirely convincing to me, it’s mostly beside the point. The immediate details of life in the Burn, the urban center that has been abandoned by the government and everyone with enough money to leave, felt right. I mean, not that I know anything about what it’s like to be poor in a place where you can’t rely on formal institutions of government or law - reading ethnographies of urban poor communities in sociology classes hardly counts - but the writing reads like real lives to me, not someone’s exaggerated fears and stereotypes of what such a life might be like.

In this story, the horrors come in the form of monsters and magic from Caribbean mythology. The main character, Ti-Jeanne, and her family, are part of the community of Jamaican-Canadians who make up an important part of the Burn. Ti-Jeanne must learn to use “obeah” to draw on the help of spirits in order to fight her crime lord grandfather’s greed for power and immortality. So far I’ve written about several books that were a bit slow to get into, but Brown Girl in the Ring is definitely an adventure story. I finished it in just a couple of sittings. Hopkinson’s style is vivid and easy to read, and the pacing is intense. Ti-Jeanne is an engaging heroine, passionate and brave, but still young, stubborn and inexperienced, and I was alternately cheering her on and yelling at her to stop making mistakes. When I am yelling at a character in my head, it is a good sign I have become emotionally invested in their story. The villain is pretty awful as villains go, there’s not much in the way of nuance or ambiguity to his characterization. He’s obsessed and willing to do a lot of bloody, gruesome things to get what he wants. I rather enjoy reading about creepy and gruesome rituals, but it’s not for everyone.

Many of the characters speak a sort of Creole dialect that was unfamiliar to me, but easy to get used to. I know a little bit about Louisiana voudoun, and a little less about Haitian voudoun, and not really anything at all about Jamaican or broader Caribbean folklore, which makes up an important part of the plot. Obviously, prior knowledge is not required to enjoy the book (naturally, at the beginning of the story Ti-Jeanne doesn’t know anything about obeah either, so the reader can learn along with her), but when unfamiliar references show up in a book I like to learn everything I can about the background, so I did a lot of googling. Sadly, Caribbean folklore is not very well-represented on the internet.

The story also seems to draw inspiration from the play Ti-Jean and His Brothers by Derek Walcott, which I pretty much cannot find any information about online, beyond the fact that the characters’ names are Gros-Jean, Mi-Jean, and Ti-Jean (in Brown Girl in the Ring, Ti-Jeanne’s mother is called Mi-Jeanne and her grandmother is Gros-Jeanne). Which is disappointing, because I kind of love intertextuality and would get a lot of pleasure from pondering what Hopkinson is drawing from the play.

Brown Girl in the Ring is on the opposite end of many spectra from the last book I reviewed, Acacia. It’s definitely directed at my “fast-paced adventure against evil” desires, and it satisfies them nicely. If you enjoy such adventures, urban fantasy, bloody rituals, and new mythology, I think you will like this book. Probably if you like those other things but are also intimately familiar with Caribbean culture you will still like it.