Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson (thoughts)
I couldn’t have picked a more polar opposite book for the second day of my Canadian extravaganza! About the only similarities between Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber and Jane of Lantern Hill is that both the authors have been residents of Toronto and, of course, I adored them both.
Hopkinson is Jamaican by birth (now she’s Canadian), and she’s created a wonderfully rich and compelling world based on Afro-Caribbean mythology as the backdrop for Midnight Robber. Set in a future with a few sci-fi elements (but not enough to make me, a skeptical sci-fi reader, uncomfortable; it’s more like a fantasy novel with scientific technology, considering the emphasis on folklore), the world’s tales and vocabulary are based around Afro-Caribbean history and the stories that these slaves told each other, including carnival. Now in the future, and on a different planet, the residents of the world are all free and can’t really imagine slavery, but they pay honour to their ancestors with a variety of traditions, including the Robber King, a Carnival character who captures people’s attention with his smooth-talking stories and playful attitude. Yep, he’s a trickster figure, and the novel is about the coming-of-age of Tan Tan Habib, a girl who will become the Robber Queen.
The plot is complex to describe, but unfolds wonderfully in the book itself (which includes occasional interjections by a narrator telling tales which are the legend version of Tan Tan’s own life, which I simply adored), so I’ll leave you to discover it. Instead, I want to talk about Hopkinson’s absolutely unshrinking willingness to confront and explore dark issues while somehow keeping the characters loving and the story compelling instead of heartbreaking. You see, Tan Tan has to deal with a father who sexually abuses her. The way that she reacts to this, and processes it, and how that changes over time is told so wonderfully, so truly, that I think this would be a powerful book for any incest survivor to read. Hopkinson doesn’t dwell on what actually happens so much as Tan Tan’s physical and emotional aftermath, and she also allows Tan Tan to be both the victim of this sexual assault and an adolescent girl with sexual urges and awakening. I find that’s rare, and the way Tan Tan is both defined by this as one of the larger events of her life but also so much more than merely an incest victim is marvelous. There’s a way Hopkinson has of writing multiple truths that exist at once, with none of them cancelling each other out, that is incredible to see. I almost hesitated to mention this aspect, since I know some people don’t like to read books that have sexual assault as a plot point, but I promise you (as someone who’s very hesitant herself to approach such novels) it’s handled in a wonderful, healing way.
As if that wasn’t enough, Midnight Robber also explores colonialism and the interactions between the colonials and colonised. In this case, since there’s a sci-fi element, the colonised are literally a different species, but they are still sentient and capable of interaction. Tan Tan ends up entering their world, and the way she reacts to their other-ness, after years of being steeped in colonial prejudice, and has to process through the contradicting impulses of superiority and gratefulness is wonderfully told. I can’t go into much more detail without giving away the story, but anyone interested in postcolonial literature owes it to themselves to read this novel.
I’m already way over my ideal word count, and my hands are getting cranky, but I can’t finish this without telling you about the writing! Hopkinson incorporates an Afro-Caribbean dialect and rhythm to the novel that makes reading it an even more powerful experience. Here’s the opening paragraph, so you can get a taste:
Oho. Like it starting out, oui? Don’t be frightened, sweetness; is for the best. I go be with you the whole time. Trust me and let me distract you little bit with one anansi story…
This style not only ties in perfectly with the mythology and traditions of the rest of the world, it also enriches the experience and argues against any prescriptive dismissal of such language as ‘wrong’ or a mere ‘patois.’
To sum up, this novel has a compelling plot, wonderful characters, a rich, stereotype-busting setting and narrative voice, and takes on important themes in a natural manner. In case you can’t tell, I completely adored it (it’s now my favourite Hopkinson) and highly, highly recommend it to anyone who loves ‘multicultural’ lit, innovative speculative fiction, Caribbean authors, postcolonial lit, or just damn good storytelling. I wish I’d finished it in time for the More Diverse Universe tour (since it’s so much more fun to write about books I wholeheartedly love), but hopefully I’ve inspired at least a few of you to read it anyway.