Today I'm talking a little bit about Karen Lord's debut novel 'Redemption in Indigo' as part of Booklust's A More Diverse Universe' blog tour, which features many bloggers all talking about fantasy and SF novels by chromatic authors.
'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—'
Apologies to Ana from thingsmeanalot for using the same quote she opened her review with, but it just provides a line of examination that is too good and bookish to resist. Karen Lord's 'Redemption in Indigo' is, as Ana astutely noted, a story that like China Miéville's 'Railsea' 'comments on the story as it's being told and makes occasional remarks on the nature of storytelling itself' like the one I quoted above. For someone like me, who is interested in how common storytelling conventions work, these self-referential comments are part of the fun of reading the book. It's nice to feel like a text is throwing knowing winks at you across the bar, because it believes that you will understand it. Isn't that part of why self-referential SF remakes are so beloved by fans who know the universe that's being wryly referred to?
I don't think I've been so conflicted about how a book's construction affects my reading in a long time. I am nearly always charmed by the sensibility of self-referential works, especially when they comment on how storytelling works. Deconstructing how narrative functions even as you construct a narrative, that's so tricky and meta, right? How can I resist the work of an author who gambles by pulling apart the very substance of the art they are creating and shows the reader just how traditional narrative gets the bunny into the hat? Even if a novel isn't pulling out many new insights into how storytelling works1 I enjoy seeing novelists embrace the spirit of investigation and illumination that seems to be embodied in novels which deconstruct narrative.
It's important for me to remember though that the transparency of a story that reveals and rejects the limits of traditional narrative, is often a tricksy illusion in itself. Even narratives bent on deconstruction must be built on some kind of alternate structure, as structure (even if it appears like no structure we've ever seen before) is what forms stories into readable pieces of literature, right? Despite the claims of the narrator that 'Once upon a time' is the 'one concession to storytelling tradition' they will make while telling this 'halftamed horse' of a story, 'Redemption in Indigo' contains a story that is often based around a traditional narrative structure; the rule of three episodes used in task or trial portions of fairy tales and myths. A good example of a western fairy tale that use this version of the rule of three is 'The Tinder Box', where a soldier enters three chambers and meets three dogs, each with larger eyes than the last. Each dog guards a hoard of money: the first watches over copper pennies, the second guards silver and the final dog is surrounded by gold. In this fairy tale each new chamber shows the soldier a dog with bigger eyes, keeping watch over more valuable currency, until he reaches the climax of the rule of three's progression, by meeting the dog with the biggest eyes, the size of dinner plates who is in charge of the most precious treasure, the gold. At this point he leaves the chambers and continues on with his story.
'Redemption in Indigo' contains a few examples of the use of rule of three. At the beginning of the book the heroine, Paama, finds that her estranged, gluttonous husband Ansige has followed her to her parent's village. While there Asinge meets with three misadventures, each more ludicrous than the last, which Paama cleverly spins to his advantage. Later in the book when Paama goes on a rather supernatural journey with a character called the Chaos Lord, she is taken to three locations before the conclusion of their journey can be achieved. So, here's a rigid structure in 'Redemption in Indigo', which reinforces the fairy tale origins of this novel2 and which appears contrary to the idea that the narrator's story is 'not a tidy thing'. So, what does this mean?
I'd like to suggest that that Lord's choice of structural elements and words subtly reflects the complicated vision of chaos that Paama discovers operating behind the scenes of her world, but I feel like I'm probably reading too much into a casual inconsistency of form and words. Beyond the charming, funny and sometimes fantastical stories that fill Paama's life this book's main theme has to do with chaos. This force is represented as both the standard messy unravelling of unending possibility, with all the negative connotations that affect the word 'chaos' as opposed to the word 'chance,' and an ordering force which creates a path through all those possibilities, as people make choices. I'd like to say that Lord's switch from a rigid storytelling pattern to, at times, an unfurling of story which appears to lack clear direction, show a narrative structure shaped around this theme of chaos. I'd like to say that when Paama seems to hand back an object called the chaos stick simply because her story has reached the end of the progression of the three rule, rather than that she's made a considered choice, that this is an example of this kind of deliberately chaotic structure. But I fear I am just going all structure-meta because I don't want to be the reader who doesn't 'get it' when the narrator has so clearly shown their disdain for readers who complain about the messiness of their stories, or view stories as 'a riddle to be solved' through the narrative asides which talk about storytelling.
This is the one complaint I have about stories that make deconstructing comments about the nature of traditional narrative — sometimes these comments can keep readers from having an honest reaction to the novel they're reading. Sometimes it's almost like having the authors intentions, which in my opinion, readers have just got to be able to disregard to be able to respond openly to a text, written into the novel as almost rules of response. This can be very inhibiting if you happen to find yourself agreeing with these intentions but feeling as if they have been under executed in the text. It's confusing at best to find yourself agreeing with the text's comments about reading, but finding that your reaction to the way a story is structured makes you want to call the book out for being messy in its execution; exactly the kind of comments it scorns in these comments. Am I mining for meta in this novel's structure because I think it's there, or because I want this narrative to validate me as a 'smart girl'? And similarly is any negative reaction to this book's form genuine, or am I being pissy because I feel like certain of the book's comments can be interpreted as attempts to direct my reading? It's difficult for me to know and I find myself feeling insecure in my ability to form an opinion when I re-read these sections of the book. Is this reaction good as it allows me to see all sides of a particular element, or is it negative because it shows an inability on my part to interpret text confidently without being swayed by author intentions? And is this reaction actually anything to do with the book, or is it entirely to do with the kind of reader I am at the moment? Clear interpretation feels very hard to grasp at the moment.
Having such a strong, confused personal reaction to the book, you might think I'd find any charm about this novel broken, but no 'Redemption in Indigo' still enchanted me. Which is part of the reason I felt like I had to get all my feelings out in this review, in order to give anyone reading a properly balanced picture of how the book affected me. It's a good job you all like words, right?
When I read that Simon from Savidge Reads feels 'Redemption in Indigo' is a 'warm' novel I thought that was the very best word to use to describe it. There's no single reason that I'd attribute that word to Lord's story, there's an accumulation of elements which all give the novel a lovely warm tone. The fun of the trickster schemes, which always stop short of being cruel, coupled with the novel's ability to allow the reader to laugh at some of the absurd characters like Asinge and a little terror of a child who has his skin stolen by the baccou, without encouraging readers to sneer coldly at these characters:
'The baccou rushed out of the room, muttering, 'Kitchen. Better stock up now while I have the chance.'
The boy let out a screech of fury and frustration and ran after him. Paama found herself grinning as she went with the djombi to the third observation point. How many times had she thought that if only Ansige could see how he appeared to others, he would be desperate to change?
The baccou was tearing messily through the larder, throwing food down and smearing his face with flour, molasses, anything that would stick and look ridiculous. When the boy saw him, he sat down on the floor and wept helplessly until the baccou stopped his rampage and squatted down beside him, a sympathetic expression on his face.
'It's not much fun anymore, is it?' he asked the boy softly.
'N-no,' the boy sobbed.
'Well it's not fun for me anymore, either. Call me up again if you want me, but you can have your skin back now.'
The compassion and quiet strength that radiates off Paama without making her a martyr-like character fills the novel with good humour and humanity. Here she is working on a scheme to keep her ridiculous husband, who she has left, happy and fed so that he won't keep transfering the blame for his foolish actions on to her:
'When the song had ended and the grinding was done, Paama's heart felt light at last. She caught sight of Ansige at the far edge of the court, looking at her as if his life depended on the contents of her mortar, and instead of being irritated at him, she felt sorry for him...She wished she could help him - not meerly feed him to take away the hunger for a short while, but cure him, so that food would never rule him again.'
Later, she proves herself to be ingenius when she spins tales to hide his foolishness and capable of even more strength, as she leaves Ansige for good and faces tough challenges with the supernatural Chaos Lord. After all that at the end of the novel she returns to see a dying Ansige out of the world with great feeling for a man who has caused her so much trouble, even though she knows the choice to leave him was the right one:
' 'Hello Asige,' Paama greeted him.
Ansige's head turned slowly until heir eyes met. 'Paama. You've come back to me.'
She couldn't bear to correct him. She simply brought the tray over to the bedside table, set it down and said, 'I heard you weren't well.'
The focus on the ordinary domestic side of life gives the book a great feeling of cosy familiarity, even if readers have never ground millet. And the repetitive rhythm of the rule of three which I just mentioned above, contributes a lulling aspect to the text.
There's probably much more that makes up this novel's cosy (but never saccharine, it hits some dark places once the Chaos Lord is introduced) atmosphere, for example:'Drenched in rain and miserable, Paama got up from the doorstep, keeping her back turned to the house with its two bodies and its broken mirror. She scrubbed wearily at her ears, feeling as if she would never rid them of the echoes of the woman's screams.
'I didn't think she was strong enough to stand, far less reach for the mirror.' she mumbled, shuddering as her unrelenting memory stopped yet again at the moment when the woman used the shard of mirror glass to slice into her own jugular.'
When I first started writing this post that was the only aspect I planned to talk about. 'Redemption in Indigo' had thoroughly wrapped me up in its spell. I wanted to explain how wonderful it was to read such a delicious story, because it was; I loved this book and I felt…safe, happy, interested and entertained while reading it. I recommend it. But once I started writing, started taking out all my reactions, I realised that any post which only focused on that reaction was going to end up ignoring my alternate personal reaction to the book, which felt equally important. And what are blogs for, but to talk about ourselves, right? ;P
1 These kind of deconstructing stories have been around for a while now. Perhaps we might expect that they would move on from reminding the reader of the tricks traditional narratives can play and begin to examine the tricks of later, more experimental narratives.
2 Lord says that 'Redemption in Indigo' is the continuation of the story of a Senegalese fairy tale heroine. Does anyone know what it's called?
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