Friday, October 28, 2011

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

I picked this book up at the library and read it on my commute, and that was the perfect way to do it, I think. The story is set in a future downtown Toronto decimated by poverty and riots, and there is something so totally eerie about reading it while the streetcar you're on rolls down the same streets described in the story, past protesting members of Occupy Bay Street. It hits close to home, for sure.

The story is part dystopian fiction, part supernatural thriller. It deals with a Toronto separated into the dangerous downtown and the safe and prosperous suburbs; in "the Burn", there are no police, no services, and things are run by mob rule. However, an organic community has sprung up, and a barter economy, and I found a lot of parallels between this world and the kind of society the protesters in St. James Park are establishing on a micro level.

The protagonist is a young, single mother of Caribbean descent, named Ti-Jeanne. She lives with her grandmother in the former Riverdale Farm (!) across the street from the Necropolis, which has a prominent part in the story - making me so glad that I was able to tour it during Doors Open Toronto this year! Gros-Jeanne, the grandmother, is a healer and a woman who "serves the spirits"; she is beloved by the community although her relationship with her granddaughter is sometimes strained.

How to describe this plot? In a nutshell, the premier of Ontario requires a human heart (!) and for various reasons the leader of the "posse", Rudy, is commissioned to obtain one. He orders Tony, a former nurse who was fired because of a drug addiction, to basically kill someone and get their heart. Tony is Ti-Jeanne's former lover (and baby daddy) and comes to her and Gros-Jeanne for help escaping the Burn and Rudy's long reach.

From there you need to discover for yourself, but it gets pretty intense! There are spirits and visions and drugs and people get flayed with knives! But it is also great. I like the way it is written. Almost all the characters are Caribbean and speak in that almost musical dialect: he go do this, she nah go do that, etc. The setting is perfect; it both is and isn't Toronto. I love reading about areas that are familiar to me, especially when the author describes how they have changed since the riots - those familiar with downtown Toronto will recognize Dundas subway station, the Don Valley Parkway, Allan Gardens, and especially the CN Tower where the climactic scene unfolds. This is a story that needs - and loves - its setting.

What I loved most about the book was the characterization of the protagonist Ti-Jeanne, and the unapologetic use of female characters throughout. Ti-Jeanne is flawed and roundly drawn - completely three-dimensional. She is feeling the same disbelief as the reader when the spirits first start to appear; we take our cues from her. Her sexuality and sexual desire are portrayed as completely unremarkable. Most of all I loved that the two heroes of this story are women of colour: a single mother and a witch. Amazing amazing.

Hopkinson sticks women in lots of peripheral roles as well that in most stories would probably default to men: the Premier is female, the heart surgeon is female (with a female partner), the lead street urchin (oh you better believe there are street urchins) is female, and on and on.

I have to say I loved reading this. It is a quick read (it only took me five one-way commutes) and totally engaging. It can be dark at times and I really wasn't kidding about people getting flayed with knives, but there are strong themes of hope and redemption and it is brilliantly written.

Four towers out of five.

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