Let the Djombi Eat Cake: a Review of Redemption in IndigoPosted: March 24, 2012
Book: Redemption in Indigo
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Published in: 2010
Paama is not having a good year.
First, there’s her husband. Let’s not even talk about her husband. No – let’s. His entire life is about food. When going on a three day trip, he hires eight mules for his bags of food, and takes along two hunters. And he still runs out. When he arrives at his in-laws’ home, Semwe (his father in law) gives him an entire lamb to eat. Which sounds like a lot, but Ansige eats all of it in a few hours, goes prowling around the village looking for more food, and ends by trying to kill one of Semwe’s sheep. Ansige’s gluttony and arrogance have pushed Paama to the point where she’s abandoned him and gone back to her parents’ village – but then Ansige decides to follow her.
Now, Paama has to try to get rid of Ansige (again). But she can’t actually throw him out, since there are Expectations.
Also, Appearances. Let’s not forget about Appearances.
It is, of course, nearly impossible to keep up appearances when your husband is running around killing other peoples’ sheep and stealing peoples’ corn, and falling into wells and getting his head stuck in your mortar.
Fortunately, Paama is up to the task. She lies. She cheats. She cooks extra food. She pretends to love Ansige. She pretends everything (from the sheep killing to the well-falling) is her fault. And she manages to kick him out.
Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of Paama’s troubles.
Impressed by Paama’s ability to deal with the insanity around her, the Djombi – powerful, undying spirits – decide that she is the perfect person to hold the chaos stick, a magical artifact with the power to control (you guessed it) chaos. They don’t bother asking what she thinks about it. They also don’t bother to let her know that the real owner of the chaos stick, a renegade Djombi with a hatred of humanity and a penchant for comic books, is on his way to take the stick back.
This, in a nutshell, is the setup of Karen Lord’s debut fantasy novel, Redemption in Indigo. It’s an unusual fantasy novel. It isn’t set in a european, or euro-derived landscape, but somewhere in Africa. The magic may be magic, but it might also be science – we get a dose of chaos theory along with the wand-waving. The hero is not a young boy, but a middle-aged woman. Her talents aren’t swordplay and sarcasm, but cooking, cleverness and civility – with a side serving of compassion. Paama isn’t interested in beating people up. She’s not even that interested in being right. She asks questions, and demands answers, and is willing to learn. Sure, she’ll yell at you, or tell you what an idiot you’re being, but only after all other options have been exhausted. And she treats everyone with this brand of tough-love civility, be they her husband, the deadly djombi stalking her, or the giant spider popping up around her town.
It’s also an unusual novel because of the narrative structure. The plot hues closely to the curves of the characters lives and thoughts rather than follow the strict linearity of conflict, climax and denouement. Several reviewers have said the book is like traditional storytelling. I would tend to agree, with some important reservations: I know absolutely nothing about storytelling culture in either Barbados, where Karen Lord grew up, or Senegal, where the folk tale that inspired Redemption originated. So it seems a bit silly of me to claim Lord is writing like a storyteller, since I don’t even know what that means. I agree, however, that there are definite elements of the (universal) storyteller in the narrative – the call and response, the meandering, the opinionated narrator (I LOVE THE NARRATOR SO MUCH. Hem. Will get back there later). Moreover, I think it’s important to note that even if Karen Lord is following a storytelling structure, she’s doing so in innovative, radical ways – she’s reworking a genre rather than just playing into it. Reading Redemption in Indigo isn’t “just like” listening to a story.
I personally am a huge fan of this sort of work. I like novels that rework genre conventions, I like novels that foil my expectations, I like novels that play around with narrative structure, that have unusual heroes, that take place in non-eurocentric cultures. So it came as no surprise to me that I loved Redemption in Indigo.
The beginning – with Ansige’s attempt to take back his wife – is hilarious. I kept trying not to laugh, because Paama’s predicament was so terrible I felt bad about laughing at all, but I couldn’t help it. The rest of the novel was equally satisfying, if not nearly as funny.
I should amend that. The rest of the novel isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it’s still quite funny. Indeed, what becomes funny in the novel is how thoroughly Lord undermines genre conventions. When the Indigo Lord shows up, he demands that Paama give up the chaos stick by threatening her sister. And she immediately hands it over. It’s fantastic!
I mean, seriously, if a giant blue guy was threatening to kill your sister, would you haggle over a stick you barely even knew how to use? No? No. Come on.
Of course, this doesn’t work (because magic never works out like that). In order for the Indigo Lord to reclaim the chaos stick, he must convince Paama that he would wield it better than she is. So the Indigo Lord takes Paama on an intergalactic road trip to show her why she’s unprepared for the responsibility of the Stick. Meanwhile, he tries to get over his hatred of humans long enough to persuade Paama that he’s not going to kill them all the second he gets his hand back on his powers. The interaction between the Indigo Lord and Paama is priceless – their natures are so different that they really can’t understand one another, but it’s fascinating to watch them try.
Although Paama and the Indigo Lord are the main attractions of Redemption in Indigo, they don’t take away from the richness of the side plots and secondary characters. The spider-trickster who can’t seem to keep a grip on his human form when trying to manipulate humans, Kwame, the tracker whose moral conscience causes him to become less and less secure about the ethics of his profession, the courtship between the failed poet and Paaama’s sister – all of those stories add to the central plot in intriguing ways. My favorite secondary plot, however, involves the House of Sisters, a group of women with supernatural abilities who help Paama handle the Chaos Stick and the Indigo Lord. They’re a very competent bunch – even when a giant spider shows up on their threshold and demands they turn him back into a human, they deal with the situation with calm and good humor. Like Paama, they are rattled by the presence of the djombi, but they’re entirely able to deal with them. The presence of the House of Sisters means that Paama isn’t alone in facing the powers of the otherworld. It also means that she isn’t the “chosen” human, with special abilities that enable her to stand up to the Indigo Lord. While I do like chosen ones (I’m an epic fantasy reader, after all) I also like this storyline – the one where, sure, a chosen one is great, but if she doesn’t work out, we’ve got other options.
My absolute favorite part of the novel – more than the House of Sisters, more than Paama, more than the genre subversions – is the narrator. The narrator is not objective in the least. She – or he – has definite opinions about the story, and she will make them known. And if she thinks the characters are silly, she’ll let the readers know. More importantly, when she thinks the readers are stupid, she’ll let us know. I particularly like how she’s always accusing readers of derailing the story, giving us information in an exasperated manner. It’s her story, damn it, and she’d prefer not to infodump, but we’re forcing her to, with all our ignorance.
“Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they made themselves known? (…) Think!” (Lord 15).
She’s always berating readers for their (supposed) dislike of the story. When she anticipates that readers won’t like the moral of the story, she tells us:” Do you go through life with your eyes blindfolded and your ears stopped? Everything teaches , everyone preaches, all have a gospel to sell! Better the one who is honest and open in declaring an agenda than teh one who fools you into believing that they are only spinning a pretty fancy for beauty’s sake. I was honest and open! Don’t you remember? I told you from the very beginning that it was a story about choices” (Lord 181).
And her discussing of the epilogue is wonderful, and hilarious, and snarky, and I was charmed to bits, because she promised us we wouldn’t get an epilogue (which was quite frustrating, since the story obviously wasn’t over), but then she gave it to us anyways, protesting all the way.
There’s something to that – to the narrator’s question and answer relationship with the reader. Much of Redemption in Indigo is about question and answer. The narrator asks readers questions. The narrator answers our questions. Characters ask questions of one another, of the universe, of themselves. Thinking about it now, I realize that there’s a chaotic element to the question and answer motif. After all, how do humans deal with the confusion of daily life except by asking questions? Constant, almost invisible questions, about our existence, and where the socks go in the laundry, and why does our sister like that boy, and is there a god, and why do people listen to Justin Bieber anyways? To the anarchy of life, we respond with an equal anarchy of questions. And we get answers, and most of the time, like Paama, or like the Indigo Lord, they’re not answers we’d anticipated, or even answers we can understand. So we ask more questions.
And sometimes, if we’re insistent enough, the world is forced to give us a semi-coherent answer – just as the narrator was forced to give us the epilogue at the end.
When I consider how well the narrative structure works with the novel’s theme, I’m in awe at Karen Lord’s ability. Especially since Redemption in Indigo is her debut novel. Her debut novel.
All I can really say is “Wow.”
And apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way. Redemption in Indigo was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for best novel (which is how I heard about it). It’s also successful enough that Karen Lord is writing a sequel. To which I say: Hurrah! I’m pleased to see this kind of work get the attention it so richly deserves – and I’m hoping for a Redemption in Indigo series.
Watch out for this woman. I would not be surprised if she keeps appearing on the major awards ballots. And if her work keeps improving – or even if it stays at this level – we’re in for a serious treat.
Which is why I say :Chocolate cake for everyone! (Even dastardly immortals).
I should also note that Redemption in Indigo is published by Small Beer Press, an independent, speculative fiction book publishing company operated by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. I evidently need to keep an eye out for them, since they published one of my favorite YA novels of last year – The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman.
Other Reviews of Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord:
Sx Salon: The Djombi and the Wormhole: A Review of Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo (includes an interesting discussion of the physics in the novel)
“He gave her one of his unfathomable, blank looks. ‘I like to read the paper for the same reason that I like the occasional bit of food – to sample human tastes.’
‘I thought you despised us,’ she said quietly.
His hands squirmed on the folded newspaper. ‘Not despise. Not all of human taste is abhorrent. There are bits that are enjoyable.’
‘Like chocolate cake and comic strip humour?’ she murmured, eyes downcast, sarcasm mild.
‘Are you eating that last piece of cake?’ he asked, unmoved.”