Nalo Hopkinson – Brown Girl in the Ring

I love Nalo Hopkinson’s fiction but it’s taken me a while to go back and pick up her first novel. It’s won awards and everything! Having read some of her newer novels, it may not be quite fair, but Brown Girl in the Ring let me down a bit. It has several first-novel problems (puzzle pieces falling into place too neatly, mostly) but already shows what a great writer Hopkinson was to become.

brown girl in the ring

BROWN GIRL IN THE RING
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published by: Aspect, 1998
Ebook: 281 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: As soon as he entered the room, Baines blurted out, “We want you to find us a viable human heart, fast.”

The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways-farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother.
She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.

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Toronto, after the Riots that ruined the inner city, is not a nice place to live. The rich have fled to the suburbs, leaving the inner city to fall apart, ruled by drugs, poverty, and the posse. Ti-Jeanne, a young woman who just had a baby, lives with her grandmother, Mami, but refuses to learn what she wishes to teach her. Mami wants Ti-Jeanne to become a healer like her, to learn about plants and their properties, how to treat wounds and diseases, and how to care for her new baby.

Ti-Jeanne was a difficult character to like and what kept me from taking to her the most was how she treated her baby. She neglects to feed him for extended periods of time, considering he is a new-born. So new-born in fact, that he doesn’t even have a name yet. When he cries, Ti-Jeanne gets annoyed more often than not, and she generally didn’t show the affection I’d expect from a new mother. Now, I know nothing about having a baby but surely hormones make sure that there is some instinct to protect your child. That was completely lacking in Ti-Jeanne. The only thing that girl is sure about is her ex-boyfriend, Tony.

Ti-Jeanne left her drug addict boyfriend Tony when she found out she was pregnant with his child. So far, so responsible. Of course, being responsible doesn’t stop her feelings for him. But Tony is stuck very deep in the posse’s machinations and has to procure a donor heart for a member of government if he doesn’t want to be killed. Posse leader Rudy is capable of horrible things and Tony is desperate, asking Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother for help.

brown girl in the ring2The plot takes a while to get started. When Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother involves her and Tony in a ritual to ask the gods for help, that’s when the story finally kicks off. I loved the use of mythology and magic in this story, because it is not clean magic, the gods aren’t predictable. You may ask one god for help, yet some other god may answer and not be inclined to help you at all. And even when they do, you don’t know how exactly they plan to help you. Ever encounter with the gods, every vision Ti-Jeanne has of the other world, was wonderfully dark and a treasure to read.

Once it becomes clearer just how evil Rudy is and how he became the leader of the posse, the book becomes quite sinister. There is a lot of blood and torture, and many secrets about Ti-Jeanne’s family are revealed. One too many, if you ask me. You can only put in so many plot twists without making them cheap. However, each of these twists is vital to the plot, so I understand why they are there. Ti-Jeanne has to find all her courage and cleverness to save her life and her loved ones, and whether she wants to or not, has to grow up in the process.

I loved the relationship between Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother in this book. Neither is able to express her feelings well (or at all) and yet it is so clear from reading the book that these two care deeply about one another. Ti-Jeanne may be still a child at heart who doesn’t know what she wants in life, but it is obvious that there is a lot of love in their small family. Ti-Jeanne and Tony’s relationship paled in comparison, consisting mostly of lust and passion (which, you know, is good but not enough in my opinion). In the course of the novel, Ti-Jeanne has to work closely with her family in order to save all their lives and it was those moments of pure teamwork that I adored to read.

This is part futuristic mafia-novel, part mythology, and part coming-of-age. The book is quite short and I felt the first half lacked focus, but the second half and the ending make up for those shortcomings. I am left a bit underwhelmed and wanting more, but overall, this quick read is a good introduction to one of the most exciting fantasy writers I know. I just fear it might not be very memorable. I’d recommend reading Midnight Robber instead.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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