I was introduced to this book after I followed a tweet from the Science Fiction Writers of America that linked to the author’s blog. She wrote a really nice piece on race/gender/etc. and speculative fiction that I commented on in my blog (social networking sites really work!). I decided that I wanted to sample some of her writing. I inter-library loaned her debut novel and was really impressed. I had a hard time putting it down.
Brown Girl in the Ring is set in a kind of near-future Toronto. The inner city has gone bankrupt and been abandoned to its criminal elements. The rich and powerful have left for the heavily fortified suburbs. Throw in organ harvesting, Caribbean mysticism, a truly despicable bad guy, and sharp, interesting characters and you have a superb book.
The main character Ti-Jeanne. She is a single mother, trying to scrape out a living in the Burn while maintaining her dignity and self-respect. Baby’s father, Tony, is a former nurse but current drug (“buff”) dealer for the powerful crime boss Rudy. Tony often tries to do the right thing, but not hard enough. His buff addiction has also taken down a dark path from which he may not be able to return. Ti-Jeanne lives with her grandmother, Mami Gros-Jeanne, a healer and seer woman who some locals believe is a witch who practices obeah. Ti-Jeanne’s mother Mi-Jeanne left a long time after a conflict with Mami. Ti-Jeanne is torn between her love for Tony, her need to provide a good life for herself and Baby, and her love for her grandmother. She’s forced to examine these needs when Uttley, the Canadian prime minister, finds herself in need of a human heart to stay alive…in both the literal and political sense. Her “spin doctor” goes to Rudy to secure a donor, drawing all of the characters into conflict.
Hopkinson does a great job of creating a realistic and likable character in Ti-Jeanne. She struggles, she doesn’t always do the right or smart thing, but for doing so is all the more real. Her resentment of her situation and, sometimes, of Baby is realistically handled and revelatory of her inner demons–demons that she begins to see in strange visions, similar to those that preceded her mother’s descent into madness.
The other characterizations were good, though sometimes just this side of the line from cliché. Tony is the tormented, morally weak junkie. Mami is the wise yet irascible grandmother. Rudy stands out as an extremely memorable character. Throughout the book, Rudy’s menace grows as the depths of his evil become more clear. He is one of the “better” villains I have encountered in while. Fear and loathing are brought to new levels with every scene in which he appeared.
The setting is intriguing. I really enjoyed the mixture of near-future dystopia and Caribbean spirituality. The rituals and spirits presented aren’t the hokey “witch-doctory” that sometimes comes from tales that deal in “voodoo” or other such religious practice. Hopkinson does a good job of explaining the intricacies of the metaphysics involved without bogging down the action of the story.
This novel was Hopkinsons’ debut effort and was published in 1998. Based on this piece I may have to see more of what she’s been up to.