The New Moon's Arms
by Nalo Hopkinson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 29, 2021
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There are many good things about Nalo Hopkinson's The New Moon's Arms, but also one giant red flag. I'm not one to say all characters need to be sympathetic, but it's hard when the main one continually does and says objectionable things. The majority of the exposition is in first-person, the narrator being Calamity Lambkin, who has surely lived up to the name she chose for herself. I can't recall exactly when she changed it, but her given name was Chastity, which was negated when she was fifteen and talked her best friend Michael into having sex. It happened once, she got pregnant, and while Michael encouraged her to have the child, he was emphatic about not wanting to marry her. Her mother was already dead, or at least it was assumed she was dead, but her body had never been found. Calamity's father kicked her out his house, and she went to live with an aunt. She gave birth to Ifeoma, and struggled through several jobs, got her GED and tried for a higher education, but was not able to afford it.
The New Moon's Arms won the Aurora for Canadian literature, and was a finalist for Nebula, Locus, Campbell Memorial, Mythopoeic, and Sunburst awards.
The story opens when Calamity is 53, on the day of her father's funeral. When she was younger she was known as a "finder," able to perceive the location of lost objects. In some stories, abilities of that sort are triggered by puberty, but in Chastity's case that was when she lost it. Now she is in the beginnings of menopause, and her ability returns, with objects from her past reappearing every time she has a hot flash. The first item is a gold brooch her mother had given her on her ninth birthday, but which went missing shortly afterwards. Next, at the reception after the funeral it's her favorite blue china plate. Back at her house it's toys and books, and most magically, an almond tree and a grove of cashew trees that had previously been on her father's property on another island, which had been completely destroyed years before in a hurricane. This is set in the West Indies, but on fictional islands. Whenever someone mentions the "big island" it could mean either Puerto Rico or Hispaniola, depending on where the fictional islands are. Probably not Jamaica, because it is mentioned by name several times. The waters around Dolorosse Island where Calamity lives are home to monk seals, which are believed to be extinct now, even though this is set approximately at the time of the writing, circa 2007. A marine biologist researcher from Jamaica thinks they're not Caribbean monk seals, but rather Mediterranean seals, but he is baffled as to how they got to the West Indies.
All of the things that keep happening to Calamity baffles her as to why, including her finding a young boy washed up on the beach near her home after a storm. He barely speaks, but when he does it is in an unknown language. She is drawn to him though, her maternal instincts returning, and she is able to convince a nurse, an old friend, to allow her to foster him until his parents are found, if they are still alive. She names him Agway, after a word he repeats many times, but it is not until toward the end she learns his real name. Both she and a Coast Guardsmen suspect he might be what has been rumored around the islands for many years; a sea person, a mermaid, or merboy in this case. That nurse friend was actually someone she had not seen since high school, when they had a falling out even before she got pregnant. Calamity has had a falling out with so many others over the years; her father, her daughter's father, employers, and several short-time boyfriends. It's surprising that nurse felt Calamity was up to raising a child, and yet when she is with Agway she is a completely different person. He begins to learn English, she reads stories to him, he watches TV cartoons and other shows. She starts to backslide again when she gets tangled in a love triangle between the Coast Guardsmen Gene and the marine biologist Hector, both of whom are quite a bit younger than her. Her affection for Agway, her desire to help him, doesn't override her impulse towards self-destruction. She continualy alienates Ifeoma, Michael and his lover, and eventually Hector and Gene.
I assumed the returning objects were supposed to teach Calamity about her past mistakes, and she does learn a few clues about her parents, but nothing is made that clear. One might conclude they are just menopausal hallucinations, except other people see the objects too. Agway plays with her old toy dump truck, Hector repairs a tricycle that falls from the sky, others pick the cashew nuts and fruit from her trees. If all of those things were supposed to teach her something, it's just other ways in which Calamity has failed. Or I failed to make the connections. In the end, Agway is reunited with his real mother, but that seems a mere coincidence she had no control over. In fact it is something her grandson Stanley does that makes that happen. She was supposed to help him with a school project but she kept putting him off, and it was Hector that helped him complete it. After she told Stanley she didn't want him around Hector. There are several other side plots that don't get resolution, including possible pollution by a foreign corporation, the current prime minister's involvement with that company, and the impending election, with Ifeoma working for the opposition candidate. The book ends with Calamity preparing food to help Ifeoma at a campaign event just a few days before the election. In many other open-ended stories, I can visualize future events, although they may not be anything like the author intended. In this case, I have no clue. I liked most of the other characters, but for Calamity it was only in isolated scenes. I would like to think she can change, will repair all her damaged relationships, but it could easily go the other way.
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