Karen Lord’s debut novel Redemption in Indigo is… kind of a mess, to be honest. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be, and it’s awkward in places, and I’m not crazy about the ending. But it is the most sprightly, fun mess I’ve read in quite a while, so I forgive it.
Take the beginning, which retells a Senegalese folk tale about Ansige the Glutton. In this version, Ansige is the husband of Paama, the book’s main character, but we spend a long time dwelling on him instead of her: his insatiable appetite, his suspicion that others are trying to get his food, his unethical willingness to cheat and steal to get more. There is no clear reason why we spend so much time on Ansige, as he plays virtually no role in the main part of the story. After about forty pages of his antics, the book dusts off its hands and moves on to the meat of the story, leaving Ansige behind and leaving the reader thinking… huh? Yet the story is told with humor and spice, and Paama’s view of her husband’s mortifying compulsion is compassionate and graceful. Structurally and narratively it makes no sense, but it’s fun to linger while we’re there.
The rest of the story is similar. It has the feel of a fairy tale, in which djombis (something like spirits or minor gods) give Paama something called the Chaos Stick, an item that can govern the forces of chance and patterns. They think she can wield it better than its original owner, a powerful indigo-skinned djombi who has become indifferent to human suffering. But the original owner wants it back, and must convince Paama that he deserves it.
There’s a lot going on in this book, including a delightful convent of women who help Paama, an accidental romance between a poet and a snotty older sister, cooking so good it is almost magical, and a peculiar epilogue that felt tacked-on and a little heavy-handed to me. Again, the narrative structure is kind of all over the place. But the voice is wonderful, with a storytelling narrator guiding our reading. At one point, a trickster djombi in the shape of a giant spider is fooling two of Ansige’s men into leaving him on the road:
I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known? For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase “I am a pawnbroker” in any known human language? Think! These creatures do not truly talk, nor are they truly animals, but they do encounter human folk, and when they do, they carefully take with them all memory of the meeting.
A lot of the book functions like this, with sly double references to rational explanations and spirit-world explanations. Take your pick, Lord says. But we know the truth.
I enjoyed the telling of this fairy tale, even if I couldn’t quite get into it all the way. My understanding is that she wrote it in a fizz of inspiration during one year’s NaNoWriMo, and I could believe that. I haven’t read either of her other books. Have any of you?