Review: Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Urban Fantasy – Standalone
“He went to one of the windows to look down on the city that was thousands of feet below the observation deck of his tower. Toronto was in darkness now, except for the lights that picked out the malls with their independent power sources. To his left was the dark mass of Lake Ontario and the red glow of Niagara Falls on its horizon. This ruined city was his kingdom.”
Brown Girl in the Ring is Afro-Caribbean inspired magical realism, set in Toronto after economic collapse has led to the city’s core being abandoned by the government. Toronto’s wealthy citizens move out to the suburbs, leaving the downtown a decaying, lawless center. In that center, a young woman who can see people’s deaths, Ti-Jeanne, balances learning about her gift with new motherhood and avoiding street violence and gangs. When her child’s father (Tony) approaches her for help getting out of gang life, however, she agrees to help him—but things don’t go as planned, and Ti-Jeanne finds herself targeted by the gang’s brutal, relentless leader.
There are a lot of things I enjoyed about Brown Girl in the Ring. Right off the bat, I liked its setting in a rundown, post-apocalyptic Toronto—what Canadian doesn’t want to see Toronto destroyed? It’s only the natural outcome of having elected Rob Ford (Kidding Toronto friends, kidding!).
Ti-Jeanne’s relationship with her baby was one of my favourite parts of the book. Ti-Jeanne is not a perfect parent; she loves her baby but struggles with him, sometimes feeling resentful of him. I am unqualified to speak on the subject, not being a parent, but it seems like a more honest depiction of motherhood and post-partum difficulties than you usually see. More troubling is her relationship with Tony. I really disliked the early chapters where Ti-Jeanne dwells on him endlessly in her thoughts. Hopkinson does a great job of depicting the obsessive and potentially destructive nature of young infatuation, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading it. I can say in a vague, spoiler-free way that I was ultimately happy with how things played out between them.
My favourite character is Mami, Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother. She practices obeah, West-Indian folk magic, and acts as healer and nurse to her neighbourhood residents with her knowledge of herbs, medicines, and spirits. Her cultural background and knowledge is a strong asset, and makes her respected within the community—in the post-apocalyptic world, the knowledge and experience she brings as an immigrant make her more valuable, not less.
The Canadian-Caribbean children, on the other hand, are less useful. Tony has medical training, something to which we often ascribe great value and importance, but is worse than useless to the community. And Ti-Jeanne’s influence in her community is tied to the way she navigates her Canadian-Caribbean identity: as she learns to respect the truth and strength of obeah, she becomes more powerful. At first she is skeptical of her grandmother, wishing Mami would practice institutionalized Western medicine. Eventually she begins finding ways to bridge her two cultural identities, practicing the obeah she learns from Mami, but with the caveat that she will enact it on her own terms and in her own way.
Some chapters take place outside the abandoned inner city, dealing with the political machinations happening behind the scenes. I found these portions of the book were jarring, though it eventually occurred to me that this was a conscious decision on Hopkinson’s part, portraying the disconnectedness and ineptness with which the politicians deal with the city core’s collapse. The wealthy, white citizens have fled, and Toronto now belongs to those who were disenfranchised before. In fact Toronto’s substantial immigrant population are the ones staying, surviving and rebuilding, while the “natural born citizens” are the ones migrating and fleeing the scene.
There are a lot of fantastic things going on in Brown Girl in the Ring, but I came away with complaints as well. Without going into detail, the plot was resolved a little too conveniently for my liking. I also would have enjoyed spending more time on Ti-Jeanne’s training, and seeing more of Mami’s character. My greatest difficulty, however, was getting invested in Ti-Jeanne as a main character. I appreciate the way that Ti-Jeanne developed from self-centered and weak-willed to strong and capable, but it left me feeling unsympathetic towards and uninterested in Ti-Jeanne for too much of the book. After reading the point of view chapters of both her and Tony, both of whom are fairly unlikable characters at first, I found myself wishing with all my heart that Mami could have been the main character instead. That would be an awesome book!
Brown Girl in the Ring’ bears some similarities to recently reviewed Orleans by Sherri L. Smith, including a young protagonist learning to deal with a new (and unnamed) baby, and a post-apocalyptic urban setting where gangs (tribes) run rampant. Unfortunately, I think that having that comparison in the back of my mind led to my not enjoying Brown Girl in the Ring as much as I could have. I ended up liking Ti-Jeanne, but she lacks the wonderful, distinctive narrative voice that made Fen de la Guerre so memorable. And while both books show the way an impoverished urban community can band together in order to survive, Orleans made the setting and culture of the former New Orleans come alive in a much more vibrant way. In spite of all the things I liked about Brown Girl in the Ring, the story, setting and characters didn’t really leave a meaningful impact on me.
In summation: while a protagonist I took too long to connect with hampered my immersion in the story, I am hugely appreciative of the commentary on ghettoization and economic/racial segregation in our urban centers, and I enjoyed the novel’s use of Creole and Afro-Caribbean folklore. I will absolutely be picking up Hopkinson’s work again.
If you like ______, you might want to pick up Brown Girl in the Ring:
- Afro-Caribbean fiction
- Realistic post-apocalyptic literature (no zombies or aliens)
- Urban fantasy
- Folk tales
You might want to pass on Brown Girl in the Ring if you dislike:
- Youthful and slightly self-centered protagonists
- Overly convenient plot resolutions