When the first line of an author’s first novel involves someone searching for a viable human heart, the reader should not expect an easy literary ride. Nalo Hopkinson’s first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, weaves a story of a young woman claiming her power through tapping into the spiritual belief of her ancestors. It is an exceptional read that plays upon all the reader’s senses and challenges. It reminds us to yield to its pull and accept that the power to succeed sometimes comes from places not easily defined.
The book is set in Toronto where those with means have departed the city center, leaving behind burnt out buildings and groups of people struggling to survive. The main character, Ti-Jeanne, and her unnamed infant son, live with her grandmother. Mami is a healer and practitioner of a religion involving nightly rituals in cemeteries and calls upon spirits to act on behalf of mortals. The father of Ti-Jeanne’s child, Tony, is a drug addict employed by a man who relies on an unworldly force to help him achieve his means. When her baby’s father is called upon by his employer to retrieve the human heart mentioned in the book’s opening, Ti-Jeanne has to accept her role in continuing the legacy passed down from her grandmother. She must harness the spirits to do good.
Hopkinson draws the struggle Ti-Jeanne faces in such a creative way. The reader feels they are right there beside her as she calls up the spirits to deliver justice’s blow. The writing is authentic to the Caribbean experience, from the descriptions of food consumed to terms of affection.
It is that strength, however, that can also be seen as the book’s weakness. The author assumes that reader’s are familiar with a lot of the cultural terms and the tenets of the faith that run throughout the book. The exact name of the faith is never mentioned. Instead, the particular gods and goddess mentioned as well as the process for calling upon them would lead the reader to assume the author is discussing Yoruba. I understand the author’s motivation for not spelling that out, but I think it distracts from the story. Another failing involves two characters Ti-Jeanne encounter that turn out to be blood kin. I feel the proper weight for their big reveals was lacking, which addressed properly, would have added an extra element to the story.
Overall, I loved the theme of the book and the way Hopkinson handled the story. Brown Girl in the Ring paid proper homage to Caribbean culture in contemporary times with just enough balance of fantasy and realism. I strongly recommend it.
Reviewer: La Toya Hankins
La Toya Hankins is the author of SBF Seeking, and K-Rho: The Sweet Taste of Sisterhood. She is a native of North Carolina and currently resides in Durham, NC. Hankins considers writer and fellow Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. member Zora Neale Hurston as her role model for her ability to capture the essence of the African American Southern experience and living the motto, “I don’t weep at the world, I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” You can connect with LaToya on Facebook and Twitter.