Brown Girl In The Ring – by Nalo Hopkinson

I must confess a pet peeve of mine – I can’t suffer when someone says that fantasy is “all the same” because it can’t help but repeat the same tired myths and tropes. I mean, if one’s knowledge is limited to a list of Tolkien knockoffs, maybe they shouldn’t speak for an entire genre that, by definition, may encompass all sorts of figments of imagination, right? That said, one thing that I love is when a book not only breaks away from the aforementioned stereotypes, but does so by drawing inspiration from different cultures, from legends and traditions not so commonly explored in fiction. This is the case with Brown Girl In The Ring, where Jamaican-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson weaves elements of dystopia and urban fantasy with Afro-Carribean magic and myths.

Title: Brown Girl In The Ring

Author: Nalo Hopkinson

Publisher: Warner Aspect

Publication Date: 19 november 1998

Genre: Science Fantasy Novel

Stand Alone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: The story takes place in the inner city of Toronto, turned after the economic collaps into an impoverished, lawless slum in which gang violence is rampant. Here Ti-Jeanne, a young single mother, lives with her grandmother Gros-Jeanne, a traditional healer and spiritualist, after leaving hes deadbeat partner Tony, who lost his hospital job due to his drug addiction and is now running errands for the local crime lord Rudy. Ti-Jeanne is plagued by terrifying visions, that are indeed a sign of her connection to the spirit world, but that she struggles to accept as she has an uneasy relationship with her family’s culture.

When Tony gets in trouble with the gang, who ordered him to find by any means a viable human heart (as requested by an influential politician in need of a transplant), he knocks at the two women’s door, hoping to find some kind of magical protection. Still easily influenced by her former partner, Ti-Jeanne persuaded her grandma to help. The two perform a ritual, but not everything goes as planned, and as the conflict escalates Ti-Jeanne is left alone to protect the city and her own life, a task that will force to fully accept her spiritual gifts. Meanwhile, Rudy is also resorting to magic, twisting ancient wisdom to his ruthless ends. What follows is a struggle in which supernatural powers are entangled with human revenges, and in which painful family secrets will be unvealed.

Analysis: The book, written in limited third person, follows the point of view of different characters according to what the story demands. True to its core themes, the prose is influenced by Carribean English, which heavily connotes dialogues and intimate thoughts, as well as Ti-Jeanne’s visions; the more impersonal parts of the narration, on the other hand, are in standard North American English. The use of different dialects and registers underlines a divide between spiritual and material world, personal experience and hard facts, while at the same time representing the composite nature of Toronto’s new culture.

The spiritual elements blend smoothly with the daily struggles of our characters, and magic is described in a way that makes it appear very grounded and real. Afro-Carribean deities and practices – Eshu, Papa Osain, as well as the manipulation of duppies – are an essential part of the story and their presence and role is introduced very effectively – with no contrived didacticism, but vividly enough to make them feel familiar even if you had no previous knowledge of them.

All such themes aren’t just fascinating on their own, but are also used to explore issues of exploitation and generational violence: spiritual traditions are passed down in a matrilinear tradition by minority women as a source of healing and wisdom, however these same women are wrapped in toxic dynamics with oppressive figures – represented by Rudy and his use of the duppy – that are repeated over and again, until they finds the means to break the circle. At a superficial reading, such an empowering message could appear to be undermined by the intervention of some literal deus ex machina, however it’s not hard to see how such a divine intervention stands in for one’s personal strength and for taking pride on one’s cultural legacy.

While the subject of magic and folklore is dealth with very insightfully, however, less convincing is the sci-fi framework of the story. The collapse of society, the mass production of animal hearts for trasplant and the controversy that surrounds it, are all themes that should deserve some proper development and attention, however I couldn’t help but feel they had been put there just to set everything else in motion. Not that there is something inherently wrong with it, but still, I was left with the impression of a somehow unifinished work, where some parts were beautifully crafted while other had been rushed – or simply that the author wasn’t sure what to do with them.

More specifically, the way Premier Uttley requests a human heart, hoping to reach for the vote of animal rights activists, is somewhere between a grotesque satire and a cruel metaphor for the dehumanization and exploitation of the poor – but soon after the issue is introduced, the heart itself becomes little more than a MacGuffin, less important for what it represent than for the personal conflicts it ignites. Then in the end, Premier Uttley is given Gros-Jeanne’s heart, but as their souls struggle and join, the cynical politician is induced to wisen up and proposes a very reasonable opt-out policy for organ donation, as long as more humane social policies… which may represent a welcome glimpse of hope in the bleak dystopic landscape of the novel, but nevertheless feels rushed and simplistic, not to mention how it weakens the abovementioned symbolic potential of this plot arc.

Conclusions & Recommendations: Brown Girl In The Ring is a very interesting work, surely worth reading for anyone interested in fantasy and non-western folklore. Sure it is somehow rough around the edges, which is not unexpected of a debut novel, but this does not detract from its good qualities. If anything, it inspired me to read more by Nalo Hopkinson.

Content Warning: Gore, violence, death of relative, death of child, addiction, abusive relationships, mental illness.

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