REVIEW: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A woman fleeing an unhappy marriage gets caught up in the machinations of djombi (spirits) and winds up with a trouble bringing gift.

MY RATING:

MY REVIEW
PROS: Rich, lyrical and beautiful language that is at turns funny, and touching.
CONS:The non-traditional nature of the narrative and story requires some mental adjustment to get used to. A few elements of the story are underdeveloped.
VERDICT: An intriguing and enchanting dip into fairy tale and myth that is new and fresh to most readers.

Poor, poor Paama. Fleeing Ansige, her glutton and gourmand of a husband, and returning to her home village should be the chance for a fresh start for the industrious, steadfast young woman who, incidentally, is one of the best cooks around. But her husband is not content to let her go and so pursues her to her home village. Worse, her nature has attracted the attention of a number of spirits, who think she would be the perfect wielder of the Chaos stick, a piece of magic that, like a Prince of Amber, manipulates probability and shadow at the wielder’s desire. Is a mugger chasing you? Too bad he just happened to stumble on that outcropping of rock and fell on his face!

But possession of the Chaos Stick draws attention to Paama, especially the attention of the powerful spirit who is the original owner of its powers, who wants those powers back and does not intend to let a puny human stand in his way…

Redemption in Indigo, the debut novel from Karen Lord, tells Paama’s story in the manner of a storyteller. The storyteller breaks the fourth wall throughout the narrative, and it is clear, early and often, that Paama’s story is precisely and simply that: a story that you, the reader, are being told to by a master storyteller. A coda at the end of the story completes the illusion and the framing of the short novel we’ve just read.

The storyteller’s point of view and opinions are expressed throughout the narrative, and it took some getting used to. While some readers might be turned off by the style, I would counsel patience. Fall under the book’s spell and let the tale spin out. It’s not a typical story that the invisible narrator tells us, at least by fantasy novel terms. It is much more in the style of a fairy tale than anything else, and even then it’s not a European fairy tale. The magic of the Chaos stick is subtle. The characters in the novel, including the djombi, are human rather than “heroes”. Paama is an extremely non-traditional protagonist and is not a “heroine” in the typical fantasy novel sense of the word. And don’t expect a “Harry Potter vs. Voldemort” battle of wills with wands in the conflict between Paama and the Indigo Lord over the stick. Their relationship is nicely complicated.

Other characters are often larger than life, clear exaggerations by the storyteller for effect: The gluttony of Ansige; the tricky nature of the djombi; the cleverness of the Tracker…They are archetypes, and that is right and proper in what is primarily a fairy tale, even if it’s a fairy tale that the Brothers Grimm never heard of (but would have loved all the same).

And, to give a small sample of the humor and language of the novel, in this bit, as he already has managed to do so earlier in the book, Ansige gets into trouble worthy of Daffy Duck. Even more remarkable is that Paama, although she has left her husband, thinks on her feet to get him out of that same trouble:

Then when she shone the torch down the well, she almost shrieked. There was Ansige, bobbing in the midst of a huge mass of floating corncobs and fragments of basket.

“What are you doing?” she cried, not knowing whether to laugh or wail.

Ansige splashed, snorted and spluttered. “Don’t act as if you don’t know me! I ate the corn that you sent me, but since people insist on taking what isn’t theirs, I had to fetch some more. And then a rock tripped me, and then the basket toppled me over, and then I was falling and—stop laughing, you silly woman. I could have been killed!”

Paama choked back her hysterical laughter. I’m sorry, Ansige. But look at you, stealing people’s corn and talking about property rights! Now I have to get you out of this, in truth. You’re far too heavy for me to pull up by myself. Wait– I’ll be back soon.”

She rushed off, hardly attending to his grumble that he could hardly go anywhere now, could he? Then an idea came to her. Running as fast as she could, she went to a field of grazing cattle, untied them and chased them into the cornfields. Only then did she dash back into the village. She began to raise the alarm, crying out for help as she ran along the streets. ‘Help me! Help! Something terrible has happened! Ansige has fallen into the well!”

With such interesting news, people quickly came running out of their doors. “In the well? What happened? How did he manage to do that?”

Paama gasped out her story. “He saw cattle…they had got loose…they were trampling the young corn. He tried to chase them away, and he gathered up the ears that had been broken off. But when he tried to make his way back to the village in the dark, he stumbled off the trail and fell into the well!”

Not all of the novel is a comic laugh-fest, although there are many laugh-out-loud moments. There are points where the story turns…not quite dark, but thoughtful and reflective and with real pathos and gravitas.

With such an elegant and beautifully written book, picking at it seems mean-spirited, and the nameless narrator of Redemption in Indigo would likely have words about my nature. However, a couple of Chekov Guns don’t ever quite go off, much to my chagrin. For example, the central object of the Chaos stick seems to be far more of a MacGuffin than actually used on-screen. Maybe, like miso soup, the effect was to make its active use in the story subtle, but it might be a bit too subtle for me.

However, I would say to bear my criticisms in mind but not let them dissuade you from reading Redemption in Indigo. The novel has been highly praised, winning the Crawford and Mythopoeic Awards, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. I now know why. Karen Lord has talent that jumps off the page. I was happy to give this storyteller a small donation of my money, and more importantly, time and attention. I think you will, too.

[See also: Karen Burnham’s review.]

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