The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson

in reviews

I keep reading books by this lady, and I just keep wanting to read more! I even bought The Salt Roads this weekend from the Friends of the Library book sale. I guess I like her writing.

This latest, The New Moon’s Arms I actually listened to as an audiobook, so I’m going to include a little section at the end reviewing specifically the audiobook listening experience, not just the story itself. Which is rather different from the previous two Hopkinson novels I read. Instead of being an action-filled plot set sometime in the future, The New Moon’s Arms is a character novel set in the present day, on a group of fictional Caribbean islands.

The book opens at the funeral for Calamity Lambkin’s father. We quickly learn that Calamity had a difficult relationship with him, and that her relationship with her own grown daughter has its troubles, too. Some odd things happen during the funeral and the reception, and Calamity becomes reacquainted with a man her father had mentored when she was young. A chain of events is set into motion that brings Calamity face-to-face, sometimes rather literally, with her past, and forces her to deal with a number of difficult truths about her life. It definitely counts as speculative fiction, but in a more…intimate way than Hopkinson’s others. The main conceit is that Calamity’s menopausal hot flashes are bringing with them lost objects from her past, which becomes apparent fairly quickly. The other part would be a spoiler, and you will have to learn its secrets along with Calamity herself.

I’m finding it a bit difficult to give my usual plot summary for this book, because it’s really not about the plot. The only big events happen early on, when Calamity finds an injured young boy washed up on the beach the morning after the funeral, and then at the climax of the story, which obviously I am not going to explain. Everything in between is a sort of leisurely build-up, getting to know Calamity, the people around her, and what has led her to the life she has. Sprinkled in between are bits of other narratives, including scenes from Calamity’s childhood, local legends and history, and other tidbits that help flesh out the world. Being a character novel, the main attraction is of course, Calamity herself, and I found her an eminently enjoyable narrator. The story is again written in a Caribbean dialect - obviously, being a first-person narration by a Caribbean woman, and the language is beautiful, evocative and funny in Calamity’s voice. She’s a quick-tempered, proud woman with a wicked sense of humor. She has her share of flaws, in particular a rather nasty anti-queer attitude, but for the most part her heart is in the right place. The story is mainly about her gradual confrontation and acceptance of those old hurts, and the beginning of healing, many years later.

Normally I find it awfully hard to like a homophobic character, whatever their other charms, but in Calamity it’s so clearly not malice, but misplaced pain and defensiveness, and she is otherwise so honest and self-aware, that all I want to do is shake her shoulders and tell her what a fool she’s being. Fortunately, she has her own daughter to see her clearly and tell it like it is.

So the story is about mending old pain, allowing the repair of old relationships and the growth of new ones. But it’s also about life in a small Caribbean nation, the economy, politics and culture of island life. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the portrayal, but Hopkinson has lived in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana, and Cayaba surely felt convincing to me. It’s also a little bit about freedom and transformation, and about seals, and who can resist an adorable endangered mammal?

The audiobook is narrated by an actress named Gin Hammond, who is just wonderful at capturing Calamity’s personality. A lot of audiobook narrators are good at reading but not so great at acting, exactly. Which is basically to be expected, since an audiobook is not a dramatic production, but with a character like Calamity it’s nice to hear someone who can convincingly deliver emotions and inflections the way people really speak. The distinction between other characters’ voices were sometimes a bit more subtle than I’d like, and the production overall makes it really hard to distinguish any jumps in the narrative other than chapter breaks. There’s barely a pause before switching to a different viewpoint, or a break in time of a couple of days, which was confusing sometimes. In general though, The New Moon’s Arms is exactly the sort of audiobook I like best - where the sound of the language itself is a distinctive part of the book, and the pace is relaxed but not uneventful (I listen mainly while I’m lying awake at night waiting to fall asleep, and books that really great at suspense and tension and stuff can be counterproductive). I found parsing the unfamiliar speech patterns easier while listening than reading, and Hammond’s voice is lovely. In fact, I’m afraid I might not have liked the book as much if I’d only read it on the page, though the excellent reviews on Amazon (and the fact that I felt completely the opposite from the one 3-star review) suggest that I still would have liked it a lot.