The OF Blog: 2011 World Fantasy Award finalist: Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

2011 World Fantasy Award finalist: Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo


There are men of violence.  There are men who drink.  And then there was Ansige, a man with a vice so pathetic as to be laughable.  He ate; he lived for his belly.  No one would believe that a woman could leave a man for that, but before you scoff, consider this.  With his gluttony, he drew in other sins – arrogance complicated by indolent stupidity, lust for comfort, ire when thwarted, avarice in all his business dealings, and a strange conviction that always, somehow, there was some undeserving person who had more food than he did.

I can hear some of you complaining already. 'A woman who cooks and a man who eats should be a match made in heaven!'  Do you really think so?  Then you have not grasped that Ansige was not an epicure, but a gourmand.  Paama's talents were wasted on him. (p. 11)

Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo is a recasting of sorts of Senegalese and Caribbean tales surrounding a patient yet wise woman and her greedy buffoon of a husband.  Yet that summary risks distorting what transpires in this slender and yet powerful novel.  Some stories get straight to the point and the reader is along for the ride.  Other tales take the time to don the accoutrements of a true story and these set up not just the particulars of the core narrative, but also the environs in which the story is occurring and operating around.  Redemption in Indigo is precisely that sort of tale and Lord's efforts to replicate as much as possible this storytelling motif makes this a pleasure to read.

Redemption in Indigo is episodic in nature, with over two dozen short chapters that outline parts of the tale:  Paama's initial dealings with Ansige, her attempts to sate his insatiable appetite, the interferences of the immortal djombi, the use of the Chaos Stick granted Paama, her resistance to interference, and the personal growth that she and others experience – all of these form delightful tales that build upon one another, adding to the richness of the storytelling.

Lord's narrative is told via third-person omniscient point of view.  It is told as if a narrator were sitting around a fire at night, imparting wisdom upon an eager crowd, yet without the preachiness some might associate with such a narrative structure.  Rather, it instructs without ever getting in the way of the story or the ways its listeners and readers might interpret what is taking place.  Here is an example of this, when the djombi are introduced:

The life of the undying is quite busy, either through dedication or desperation.  The benevolent ones are the most diligent and the most overlooked, because they work with willing people and take their images as their shadows.  The person who looks and in an instant reads your soul, the ordinary type who suddenly declares a profound and wise truth – I do not mean to take anything away from these people, for they are willing collaborators in a great work, but in many such cases they have lent their shadows for that pivotal moment.

Alas, there are others, not quite so benevolent, who entertain themselves by tormenting the lesser beings, namely humans.  Cooperation is not a word that you will find in their lexicon, which is why they often find it simpler to snag a ride with a passing insect or any small creature whose brain can be easily overpowered.

Some are but tricksters, turning the tiniest of choices into a dire misstep or a trigger for catastrophe.  Even very powerful ones, those who have learned to make their own shadows, sometimes do nothing more than tease and tweak fates a little, just for a good laugh.  I am sure that the spider of Ahani was one of that sort, wreaking minor havoc in the form of his own whimsically-crafted shadow. (p. 42)

Some readers might have noted the mention of Ahani and connected it with the related spider-god, Anansi.  There are several such mythological connections to be made while reading Lord's novel and while one might expect to see trickery to occur, Lord is very careful to make her tale much more than just having figures of West African folklore appear and "do their thing" before shuffling off.  Rather, she spins a deceptively complex narrative in which fate and chance, patience and guile intermingle and create a tale that contains very few rough points.

Redemption in Indigo contains few weaknesses.  It takes the folklore core and makes it feel fresh and vibrant.  The characters remain appropriate for the type of tale being told and rarely stray from the roles in which they have been cast.  The scenes flow nicely into one another, building upon the lessons learned along the way until the end is reached and the reader sees just how far most of these characters have gone along the road of personal discovery and growth.  It is more than a fable or a story to be dismissed with a smile and a shrug after the final page is turned.  It is a powerful debut novel, certainly one of the best considered for this year's World Fantasy Awards for Best Novel.

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