Jun 8, 2012

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. I am willing to admit to many faults, but I will not burden my conscience with that one. All my tales are true, drawn from life, and a life story is not a tidy thing. It is a halftamed horse that you seize on the run and ride with knees and teeth clenched, and then you regretfully slip off as gently and safely as you can, always wondering if you could have gone a few metres more.
Thus I seize this tale, starting with a hot afternoon in the town of Erria, a dusty side street near the financial quarter. But I will make one concession to tradition.
...Once upon a time—
Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo tells the story of Paama, a woman who escapes her unhappy marriage to a gluttonous man, Ansige, and returns to her parents’ home in the village of Makendha. But Ansige eventually manages to find her, and he makes quite a nuisance of himself in the process of trying to win her back. Paama’s comedic attempts to get rid of her husband get her mixed up in the affairs of a group of powerful spirits called the Djombi. She receives the Chaos Stick, an object with the power to make the unlikely come to pass, as a gift – but the Chaos Stick belongs to a particularly merciless and powerful Djombi, the Indigo Lord, and he’s absolutely determined to get it back.

Redemption in Indigo is a fantasy novel partially based on a Senegalese folktale, and it successfully combines elements such as tricksters, time travel, humour, a sensible heroine, and a gripping and metafictional narrative voice. Lord’s debut had been on my TBR pile since Ana recommended it to me last year, but the reason why I finally picked it up was because I saw someone1 compare the narrative voice in Railsea to this novel’s – and although the two books are ultimately very different, I can certainly see their point. The narrator of Redemption in Indigo, much like the narrator of Railsea, comments on the story as it’s being told and makes occasional remarks on the nature of storytelling itself. The following example should give you a good idea of what this narrative voice sounds like:
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.
I really love this kind of storytelling voice; it’s the kind that grabs me right away and doesn’t let go. Furthermore, it makes me feel like I’m being addressed directly by a kindly, witty, and wise raconteur, and this evokes all the comforting associations of having someone sit you down and tell you a story. As I said before, Karen Lord uses a Senegalese folk talk as the point of departure for Paama’s story, but as tempting as it is to say that the narrative voice draws further from a West African storytelling tradition, I don’t know enough about this tradition to be able to tell how it informs this novel with any certainty.

Let me tell you a little about Paama herself: as Karen Lord explains in her post for John Scalzi’s The Big Idea, Paama belongs to a tradition of ordinary folk heroes who win the day with their resilience, level-headedness, and ability to keep making the right choice under pressure. Despite her traditional roots, Paama is not the sort of heroine that gets much appreciation in modern literature, I don’t think; but I for one found her refreshing and a delight to get to know. Paama is also a very talented cook, and I loved the fact that her traditionally feminine occupation was never denigrated or framed as something that had to be explained away or that kept her from being the heroine of her own story.

There’s a passage from the epilogue in which our assertive narrator sums up what is pretty much the heart of Redemption in Indigo:
Don’t you remember? I told you from the very beginning that it was a story about choices—wise choices, foolish choices, small yet momentous choices—for with choices come change, and with change comes opportunity, and both change and opportunity are the very cutting edge of the power of chaos. And yet, as the undying ones know and as humans too often forget, even chaos cannot overcome the power of choice. I have no way of knowing which of these characters will most capture your attention and sympathy. Paama will be too tepid and mild a heroine for some, they will criticise her for dutifully caring for her estranged husband in his last days. Chance will be too cold, the Trickster too odd, Patience too distant. In stories as in life, it is an impossible task to please everybody. But before you dismiss them, I ask those who care for the weak to look at Patience and see their own professional distance, so essential for maintaining their own strength amid the trials of many. Look to the Trickster to see your eccentricities, your talent for mercy deep-hidden underneath a fearsome exterior; to Chance for your self-centredness, self-pride, and despair; and to Paama for your sense of familial duty... and yes, I think I can get you to admit that you may not like my people, but you cannot fail to recognise them.
It’s funny; I don’t think I’d accept this kind of “Look, Here is Our Theme!” commentary in any other novel – at least not without finding it heavy-handed and awkward. But somehow Karen Lord makes it work. Perhaps it’s because this passage is so playful and so in tune with the overall voice of the story. The metafictional commentary doesn’t become an attempt to close down possible readings, but is instead presented as one more element the reader can make up her mind about.

Redemption in Indigo is a gripping, original, funny, and delightful novel. I’m very much looking forward to Karen Lord’s next work.

They read it too: The Book Smugglers, Bibliophile Stalker, Culturally Disoriented


1 Typically, I can’t remember who that was. Let me know if it was you and I’d be happy to credit you.

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  1. I read this book back in February and really enjoyed it! I thought Paama was an awesome heroine, and I really enjoyed the humour that was present throughout the book as well. The narrator was definitely my favourite part though.

    I wrote a review for it which you can read here.

  2. Oh, interesting! I like the idea of a woman protagonist winning the day based on her smarts :-) That is pretty much enough for me to want to read this.

  3. I am a fan of this style of narration as well; although I rarely come across books written in this fashion. I'll have to pick it up.

  4. I actually am a fan of the intrusion of an authorial voice -- it's probably traceable back to my earliest experience of literature being CS Lewis, who sometimes says things like "This was not grammar, but that is how beavers talk when they're excited." And the Victorians do it, and I love the Victorians, and just generally, I like for the author to acknowledge I'm there. Because I am there! They might as well acknowledge it!

  5. I am completely sold on this book. These excerpts have totally sold me on the voice, and I've been thinking a lot lately about fantasy based on something besides the pseudo-European Middle Ages standard. Very excited.

  6. OH! Thank you so much for reminding me of this one. I'm really hoping I had actually bought it and it is on my Kindle... but I think that I only added it to my wish list... hmmm..

  7. I've been trying to borrow this from the library, but now I think I should just buy it instead: thanks for the recommendation that nudged it off the "maybe" list.

  8. And now I've requested it from my library! Squee for trickster stories!


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