Review: Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo HopknsonFollowing economic collapse, Toronto dissolves into such chaos that the central city, known as “the burn”, is abandoned by Canadian government. Those who live there do so without proper infrastructure, no electricity or plumbing, no hospitals, no police, etc. Yet, these people manage to create lives in the slums, small businesses built in what ways they can (one person fixes shoes by replaces the soles with old tires), and doing what they can to avoid the dangerous gangs that proliferate.

Ti-Jeanne is a woman who feels trapped by the burden of her baby son, while wanting to end her relationship with her drug-addicted boyfriend Tony and dealing with her gruff, overbearing grandmother. On top of that, Ti-Jeanne begins having frightening visions, which means she’s inherited some of her grandmother’s gifts. Ti-Jeanne can’t seem to escape her attraction to Tony, especially after he gets in trouble with the gangs and seeks her help.

Nalo Hopkinson draws on her Caribbean roots to infuse this novel with such folk creatures as Jap-Jabs and duppies and other strange spirits. It’s a richly textured novel with a well-realized sense of place and community.

Ti-Jeanne is a strong character, a woman who may not always be sure of herself, but has the strength to act when action is required. And as a whole, the characters in this book are complicated and interesting, with the main villain Rudy being truly terrible and terrifying. A really great book that has me wanting read a lot more of Hopkinson’s work.

As I mentioned, one of the presentations at FOGcon was by Nalo Hopkinson, in which she played ring games, one of which was the “Brown Girl in the Ring” game (here’s a link to the words and here’s a video of a disco star singing it is in 1978), which is quoted several times throughout the book. I didn’t understand the quote when I read it the first time, but seeing Hopkinson in a group, singing the rhymes and showing how the game is played (one person stands in the center, while other stand in a circle around her singing, then the girl in the center makes a body movement, which the circle repeats, at which point someone else is chosen to be in the center), added a whole new element to the reading of the book. It makes me want to go back and read the book again and see how that new understanding of the game may change how I perceive the text.

[Cross-posted to my livejournal.]