Brown Girl in the Ring
by Nalo Hopkinson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Nalo Hopkinson's debut novel from 1998, Brown Girl in the Ring, is fantasy/horror, set in a future, dystopic Toronto. The main characters are Afro-Caribbean women, Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother Gros-Jeanne. The elder is renowned as a healer and herbalist, and even though she observes some rituals she learned in Jamaica, which derived from Igbo customs in Nigeria, she resents anyone calling her an obeah. Not sure why, unless she feels that is a negative term, but she is a seer. Ti-Jeanne, as did her mother before her, tries to distance herself from her grandmother's beliefs, although strange happenings eventually compel her to seek her help.
The story takes place about twelve years following major riots in downtown Toronto, which caused all government and law enforcement agencies to pull out and relocate to the suburbs. The city center was cordoned off and barricaded, leaving the poor to fend for themselves. Squatters occupy abandoned properties, with many homeless children living in now unused subway tunnels. Rudy Sheldon is a crime lord, directing operations from his headquarters in the CN Tower through henchmen known as the Posse. He also knows magic rituals, and uses them for nefarious purposes. Tony, the father of Ti-Jeanne's newborn son, is a member of the Posse, and is also addicted to the most prominent drug Rudy pushes, buff, derived from Bufo frog toxin, then mixed with various other substances, including crack cocaine. A subplot involves the Premier of Ontario, who is in desperate need of a heart transplant. For years there had been a backlash against using human organs for transplants, most hearts being taken from pigs, but Premier Uttley wants to change that, and insists on a human heart. Rudy is tasked with acquiring one from a human donor, no questions asked. Tony had been a paramedic before getting fired for drug use, so naturally, Rudy turns to him to complete the plan.
At the beginning, the phonetic spellings and fractured syntax in the dialog was hard to follow, along with quite a few terms I had to google. I found it helped to read the dialog out loud, which made it easier to visualize the characters. Once into that rhythm the story flowed well, with vivid descriptions of characters and locations, which the author knows well from living in Toronto for many years. Ti-Jeanne is a strong, capable woman, but she suffers from the uncertainties of young motherhood. She loves Tony but knows he is unreliable. She left him early in her pregnancy, and it's not until halfway through the book that he learns he's the father. Things would have been easier for her if her grandmother had confided in her more, but of course there were reasons she did not. The only thing I can criticize is the story cries out for a sequel, too many elements I wanted to learn more about, particularly the future of Ti-Jeanne's son, as well as if she ever forgave Tony. Many scenes of the magic and its aftermath are more gruesome than I normally prefer, and there are many unexpected surprises along the way. I won't spoil those, but was thinking some of the scenes would make great climactic moments at the end of a television episode. Not sure if we'll ever get that, but it has been adapted into an independent film, only on the festival circuit now, but I'm hoping I get a chance to see Brown Girl Begins soon. Not sure if the title implies there will be a follow-up, and I'm sure several things were changed to accomodate the low budget. If and when I do see it, I will review it. Nalo had only published three short stories prior to this book, but on its strength she won a Locus award for Best First Novel, as well as the John W. Campbell Award as Best New Writer in 1999. Both were well deserved.
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