Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Reviewed by Victoria Hoyle
03 October 2011
Karen Lord's debut begins gawkily. Our narrator denies it and, in so doing, makes it so:
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 myself with that one. All my tales are true, drawn from life, and a life story is not a tidy thing. (p. 1)
It is a smart way to begin, a nudge-wink apologetic for a novel that is defiantly awkward and untidy, and not in the least bit true to life. Here, on the one hand, is the story of a woman, Paama, and her gluttonous husband Ansige. Here is the story of how she left him to return to her parents' village; and here is the story of how he traveled there to recover her. Here is the threefold folktale of how his prodigious appetite got them both into trouble. But wait, here is another story entirely, about the djombi—shape shifting spirits that tease, change, and transform human lives—and of how they gave Paama the gift of Chaos, and of how Chaos's previous master tried to take it back.
Nalo Hopkinson has called Karen Lord "the impish love child of Tutuola and Garcia Marquez" and she has it there. Redemption in Indigo is a wonderfully strange Frankenstein of a book, composed with organs and limbs harvested from innumerable literary traditions and cultures. First one story, and then the other, and then another, and then everything tied up together in the end with an unlikely bow on top. Aside from the Senegalese folktale that was its inspiration, the book is most powerfully reminiscent of Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), a classic of Nigerian literature that disdains the narrative expectations of the novel form and instead patchworks together tangled and disorderly oral folktale with contemporary setting and patois.
Lord knocked Redemption together very quickly during NaNoWriMo—that being the 21st century answer, I suppose, to the spontaneity and creativity of the oral tradition—and does the same as Tutuola, except she takes her inspiration from a much wider pool of sources. He is only the most obvious; Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare are all obviously present. Even Chaucer, maybe (Ansige's character is one he would have been proud of). As well as a host of half-remembered stories and sayings from Lord's own Caribbean heritage. Her book shows every sign of being written in haste, by a mind fizzing with all these texts and narratives. It bears a heavy burden of the agonies and ecstasies of influence, but is so nimble and reads so lightly that any worst effects are mitigated. It could have been an unholy mess but is quite the opposite.
Paama is one reason for this nimble lightness: she is such a strong independent woman, the catalyst for every single reaction in the story, that it is impossible to resist her. Whether it is the comedy of the first third—which she prompts by leaving Ansige—or the morality tale of the Chaos Stick, she is quick and resolute at making choices, and mostly the right choices. It is a gift women don't often have in fiction, where dithering and mistakes are the norm. She has other talents too. Her cooking is renowned, almost magically good, and her levelheaded reasoning in a crisis saves a life more than once. If the story can be said to have a unifying arc it is Paama's growing determination to make a life for herself:
a life outside of Makhenda. She wanted to travel. A good cook could find work anywhere, in a household, on a ship, in a guest house. She had long desired to see the world. . . . She made preparations. She began to compile her recipes, printing them carefully in hardback books and then putting the books into an old biscuit tin where they would be sealed away and protected from damp and vermin. She took up her savings, money earned from her share of the family’s lands and livestock. She did this swiftly and quietly, because she did not wish to discuss with her family what she could not fully explain. (p. 74)
The other reason for the lightness is, unsurprisingly, the humor. Redemption in Indigo is a funny book, because it knows when it is open to incredulous ridicule (which is quite often). The book's congenial narrator occasionally butts into a scene to editorialize for the dubious amongst us. Like, for example, when a giant spider sidles up to Ansige's servants in a bar and encourages them to pawn their masters' mules. "I know your complaint already," the narrator scoffs:
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. (p. 15)
This is characteristic of the book—we're offered a reasonable human-logic explanation in the form of the spice spirit, followed by a sidelong djombi-logic explanation. Lord is encouraging us to both laugh and marvel at our own credulity, and simultaneously suspend our disbelief. This is the frisson which underlies so much fiction in the postmodern world but is most persuasive, not to mention ticklish, when it presents itself with this much impudence.
The same dichotomy presents itself again, in Lord's merry commingling of fairytale tropes with mundane objects and, to a lesser extent, in her mixing of ideas from traditional folktale with contemporary fantasy. Paama is a woman who wears the Chaos Stick at her belt, and has the power to change the course of history; but she is also a woman who writes recipes in notebooks and stores them in an old biscuit tin. Ansige is a folktale figure who can eat a whole sheep in a sitting and not feel satiated, but he also travels on the omnibus with "a packet of antinausea, antacid chews" (p. 16). This is not magical realism as such, although it has its hallmarks. It’s something hardier than that, without the whimsical fatalistic undertone. Whimsy and fatalism are definitely missing from Lord's vision. What underlies here is morality; and it's quite plain and simple too. It is a morality which demands metaphor, which comes in the guise of folklore, which then in turn becomes Redemption in Indigo. For all its dalliance with post-modernism the novel betrays a very earnest take on "the dreaded Moral of the Story."
There are those who utterly, utterly fear the dreaded Moral of the Story. They consider it an affront to their sensibilities and a painful presumption on the part of the storyteller. They are put off by the idea that a story might have anything useful to say and, as a result, all the other joys a tale has to offer are immediately soured. I save my most scathing remarks for them. . . . Everything teaches, everyone preaches, all have a gospel to sell! Better the one who is honest and open in declaring an agenda than the one who fools you into believing that they are only spinning a pretty fancy for beauty’s sake. (p. 181)
The book wants to tell us something, although it leaves it mostly to us to decide what them something is: Choice is important? Always take responsibility for your actions? There are no crimes that cannot be redeemed?
Redemption is a powerfully positive idea about being human. Namely, that you can make terrible, terrible mistakes and yet still make up for it through the rightness of your future actions. The denouement of the book—the part where both comic and moral stories are tied together with a happy flourish—is all about this, about how a person (or a spirit) might pay the world back for his sins. It leaves me a little sore because, let me be honest, I don't like this ending: the saccharine neatness of it doesn't seem quite decent after the irrepressible, puckish energies of the rest of the story. Lord’s diatribe against my cynicism—which she clearly anticipates—works insofar as it makes me feel like a killjoy. But nevertheless, even after much thought, I find I like my morals with a bit more bite.