Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Published: Small Beer Press, 2010
Awards Won: Mythopoeic Award, Crawford Award, Frank Collymore Award
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award
“Paama’s husband is a fool and a glutton. Bad enough that he followed her to her parents’ home in the village of Makendha—now he’s disgraced himself by murdering livestock and stealing corn. When Paama leaves him for good, she attracts the attention of the undying ones—the djombi— who present her with a gift: the Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. Unfortunately, a wrathful djombi with indigo skin believes this power should be his and his alone.” ~smallbeerpress.com
I had no idea what to expect coming into Redemption in Indigo, as this is Karen Lord’s debut novel and I have no knowledge of Caribbean literature. I'm really glad I ended up reading it, and I'm looking forward to reading Lord's first science fiction novel (The Best of All Possible Worlds) when it's published in 2013!
I used to read tons of folk tales and fairy tales as a child, so the style of Redemption in Indigo was pleasantly nostalgic for me. It was written as a story in an oral tradition, with a first person narrator telling the tale to, I assume, a crowded courtyard. It was an interesting style, which lent itself to some explicit explanation of the nature of the characters, and also allowed natural digressions and hopping around in the story, as the teller slowly built the tale up for his/her listeners. I thought the oral storytelling approach to the novel was charming.
Apparently Redemption in Indigo actually borrows from a Senegalese folk tale, but just for a few of the early chapters that chronicle Paama’s difficulty with Ansige. I was not familiar with the folk tale itself, but I think its inclusion did help to set the tone of the world and the story. The major folkloric, fantastical element of the story is the undying ones, the djombi. These creatures can be benefactors of mankind, malefactors, or tricksters, and they can take the shape of animals or people. Once Paama receives the Chaos Stick, an almost science-fictional element also enters the story. The Chaos Stick has power to affect probability, or as a djombi says, it acts as “a type of focus or control for the quantum fluctuations that determine whether a situation is Go or No Go”[p.98 e-book]. All of these elements are woven together in a way that makes the story feel fresh and original, while still seeming traditional.
The cast of characters that make up the story are introduced individually by the storyteller. Their personalities are often a little exaggerated, but that seems to fit with the kind of story that’s being told. The main characters, Paama and the indigo djombi, seem the most complex and realistic. They are set up as the heroine and the villain, though neither is completely defined by their assigned role. The supporting cast is memorable and often amusing, from the lovestruck poet Alton to the Paama’s ridiculous husband Ansige. The human and djombi characters, and the conflicts between them, drive the story.
The actual flow of the plot sometimes felt a little jumpy. The storyteller would sometimes move forward or backward in time, or skip laterally over to another story. The story began a little awkwardly, as the storyteller set the scene and introduced the characters. The storyteller actually acknowledged and explained this awkwardness in the introduction, which somehow made it less of an irritant. The whole novel was, for the most part, pretty humorous, but the early slapstick comedy of Paama and Ansige felt almost like a prologue to the actual story. I also did not really feel like the epilogue was particularly necessary. I thought that the end of the novel tied everything together sufficiently, and the things left open-ended did not detract from the strength of the conclusion. The epilogue seemed unnecessarily blatant, as if it existed to make absolutely sure the readers didn’t miss anything. Even with my minor complaints about the structure, the story was a very effective tale of redemption and the strength and value of ordinary people.
My Rating: 4.5/5
Redemption in Indigo was a charming story that managed to echo the feel of folktales I’d read as a child while weaving a story complex enough to keep an adult entertained. While Paama and the indigo djombi were the most developed characters, the side characters, with their exaggerated personality quirks, were definitely memorable. I thought the plot sometimes seemed a little jumpy or fragmented, but I didn’t feel like it significantly weakened the strength of the story. The story itself was occasionally sad, but it was more often funny and uplifting. Though it does deal with redemption, as you may guess from the title, it also features the worth of ordinary human beings. I think Redemption in Indigo is a very impressive first novel, and I hope to read more speculative fiction from Karen Lord in the future!