A Weekend of Reading: Brown Girl in the Ring, Lord Hornblower, The Bone Knife, and Marta Oulie
Between the read-a-thon and a Sunday afternoon spent planted in my armchair to encourage Moth and Thistle to keep sleeping near each other, during which I only had my Nook within reach, I’ve got several books to discuss! Let’s just dive in, shall we?
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson was one of the last books of hers I had left to read; she’s a firm favourite of mine but I still managed to be surprised by just how much I loved it! The plot summary, which included the phrase ‘post-apocalyptic Toronto’ and the the first chapter, about acquiring a heart for a transplant, made me believe I was in sci-fi or dystopian territory, where I only venture with very trusted authors. But it turns out this speculative fiction leaned more towards the urban fantasy side, with duppies and voodoo gods and various magical talents throughout the book, which of course made me love it even more! Downtown Toronto has, through a series of political events, been abandoned to its fate; there are no more government services and walls divide it from the still prospering suburbs. While there certainly are crime rings that have moved in, Hopkinson also shows the resourcefulness of the people who now make their home there, from the ones that garden and hunt in a former park to all the various goods and services that are bartered. Ti-Jeanne, the heroine, lives in a calmer part of town with her grandmother, a wise woman and healer, and her new baby, so new he hasn’t yet been baptised. She’s reluctant to embrace her grandmother’s ways, which combine western medicine with folk healing and Caribbean voodoo rites, and is just trying to figure out how to create a life for herself and her new baby, when she finds herself thrust into a power struggle with the merciless, seemingly omnipotent head of the biggest gang, whose power seems to come from a perversion of voodoo practices.
This is very much a Brier Rabbit type tale, in which Ti-Jeanne must use her wits and allies to take down an opponent who is, on the face of it, terrifyingly more powerful than her. And Hopkinson handles it brilliantly: the plot is paced perfectly, and there’s always just enough exposition to keep the reader from being lost, but not so much it pulls you out of the story. I cared about all of the characters, both minor and major, and throughout the rollercoaster ride of a plot, I couldn’t stop reading. This is such a rich book too, full of strong women who nevertheless suffer from various effects of patriarchy, and one that examines all of the ways love can go right or wrong, and how we find ourselves trapped by decisions we’ve made in the past. Hopkinson’s descriptions are so vivid I felt like I was in this changed Toronto with Ti-Jeanne and her family, from her grandmother’s house to the underground passageways to the CN tower. And when the gods appear, they command enough fear, majesty, and love, to feel perfectly authentic too. This book has some dark moments and challenging scenes, but I promise you it’s worth it. At the end, I felt uplifted rather than depressed. I can’t recommend this enough! I’m also going to count it as my ‘folklore’ choice of the Once Upon a Time Challenge, since it includes various Caribbean ballads and just as the right feel for that. I know that can be a tricky category, so if you’re a participant still looking for a good choice, do yourself a favour and pick up Brown Girl in the Ring!
C.S. Forester’s Lord Hornblower was the other novel I read during the read-a-thon. I used to really enjoy the series and somehow fell out of reading them, so I thought I’d pick them back up (I’m reading in published order instead of internal chronological order). The first part of this was filled with what I’ve come to expect: nautical adventure and derring-do, interspersed with much soul-searching on the part of Horatio, who is still deeply enmeshed in the war against Napoleon. However, then the story took a swerve I wasn’t expecting, and one that I found deeply disappointing, so that by the end of the book I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the next one. Granted, the next few in published order go back in time for Horatio, but knowing what he’ll decide to do in later life has sort of soured me for spending more time with him. I don’t mind some tarnish on my heroes, but I prefer there to be a good reason for the tarnish. Perhaps I’ll reconsider in a few months, but especially after the richness of historical novels by authors like Dorothy Dunnett and Hilary Mantel, this one fell a bit flat. Perhaps I’ve outgrown Forester? And perhaps I should give Patrick O’Brien yet another try (this would be my third attempt to get into Master and Commander) to fulfill my seafaring yearnings. I’d still definitely recommend the series in general, for when you’re in the mood for a light but not thoughtless adventure story, but read them in internal chronological order instead so you don’t get to this one until almost the end!
Sunday afternoon I spent reading more of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (a marvelous book that I’m still in the middle of but shall devote an entire post to when I finish it) and then two novellas, all luckily available on my Nook! I downloaded The Bone Knife by Intisar Khanani for free after enjoying Thorn a few months ago, and as OUaT has me in a fantasy mood, I couldn’t resist picking up. It turned out to be shorter than I expected (about sixty pages, although the ebook was one hundred twenty pages, the second half proved to be an expanded sample of Thorn), but no less enjoyable for that. We open with three sisters in the kitchen of their home, whose usual routines have been thrown into disruption by the mysterious man who’s come to visit their father, and who seems suspiciously like a fairy. The story is told in first-person by Rae, the eldest sister, whose clubfoot sets her a bit apart from the rest of the village. She’s smart and resourceful of course (this is a fairy tale!), but what I really loved was the relationship between the three sisters: affectionate, supportive, and exasperated all at once. Khanani does a great job drawing the reader right into her worlds, and I’m pleased to learn that she’s planning a trilogy featuring Rae in the future. For now I’d definitely urge you to treat yourself to The Bone Knife for a pleasant hour or two if you enjoy fairy tale inspired fantasy (the ebook is available for free so it’s an easy treat), and if you haven’t read Thorn yet, get that one too while you’re about things. And I hope her trilogy comes out sooner rather than later!
To continue the novella theme, I then read Marta Oulie by Sigrid Undset, trans. by Tiina Nunnally. I’ve enjoyed all of the Undset I’ve read, both her historical fiction and the stuff set in her contemporary time of the early 20th century. This was her first published work, and it shows a bit of unevenness, as you might expect from a debut novel. The pacing wasn’t quite perfect, but pretty soon I was too interested in Marta Oulie, the narrator. Like The Awakening, which was written just a few years earlier, it chronicles the inner emotional life and turmoil of a seemingly satisfied privileged wife and mother. Marta opens with a confession of adultery and her subsequent misery, and then moves between flashbacks from the past and recounting of ongoing events, trying to figure out what went wrong in her marriage and why she feels so stifled now. It is very much a feminist book, arising from a turbulent time, but while Marta is in one sense a mouthpiece for her author, her personal sense of anguish and frustration feel very immediate. While this doesn’t have the power or polish of her later writing, it is very much worth reading, and I’m pleased Nunnally did a translation (she’s my go-to Norwegian and Swedish translator). I certainly recommend it, especially for those interested in the Belle Epoque period or early feminism or classics by women.
Whew! I think it’s time for me to get away from the computer and go enjoy a fine spring day in the woods with Thistle. But I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, so hopefully I’ll manage to tell you about more of the books soon! I’m slowly easing back into the blogging habit, but it’s too early to see if it’ll stick this time. I want it to.