I finished reading Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) a few days ago and am currently working my way through her short story collection Skin Folk (2001), and I’m once again experiencing a Jane Yolen moment where I suddenly need to hunt down and devour anything I can get by Hopkinson because she’s such a fantastic writer. I’m also utterly baffled that I hadn’t read anything by her before; she’s a Canadian sf author and I’m always trying to keep up with my “scene”, but I obviously haven’t been doing a very good job. I mean, Brown Girl in the Ring was a selection for the 2008 CBC Canada Reads thing (it’s like a reality show but about books and on the radio…I’m not exactly the biggest fan) and has blurbs from Tim Powers, C.J. Cherryh and Octavia Butler; for a first novel, that’s damn impressive. Anyway, from what I’ve read so far, Hopkinson might well be the best writer I know of working in Canada, and I’m including Margaret Atwood, Guy Gavriel Kay and Charles de Lint in that group.
Brown Girl in the Ring begins as a science fiction novel. It’s Toronto, not too far in the future; the centre of the city has experienced a complete economic collapse and the affluent have retreated to the suburbs, barricading themselves away from the city itself. Conditions in Toronto are at the level of a third-world country, the poor eking out a living from the ruins. Meanwhile, out in the ‘burbs, premier Uttley suffers from a failing heart. Due to a recent disease outbreak affecting those with pig-derived organ implants, however, she sees this as a political opportunity. Get a human transplant and re-instate the organ donation program as an ethical alternative to slaughtering pigs. But no one’s donated an organ in years, and the only way to obtain the human transplant Uttley so very much needs for her re-election campaign is to harvest a matching heart from the poor in Toronto itself…
This is all set up in the first eight pages, and what you’d expect is a Gibson-esque high-stress cyberpunk thriller.
That’s not what happens; Hopkinson instead gives a truly fantastic twist by shifting focus to our main character, Ti-Jeanne, and dipping into West African and Caribbean mythology as the hunt for a heart transforms into a voodo-fueled battle raging throughout Toronto. At turns funny, exciting, terrifying, and even grotesque (descriptions of torture and violence are uncomfortably visceral, as they should be), Brown Girl in the Ring kept me flipping pages late into the night. The characters are incredibly well-drawn, and a set of perfectly-timed revelations that redefined character relationships and punch you, and the story, in the gut make for one incredible piece of fiction.
It’s also quite short (my copy comes in at 248 pages) and contains no wasted words whatsoever. A welcome change from our current fantasy market.
The stories in Skin Folk aren’t quite as crazy-awesome as Brown Girl in the Ring, but show a deep understanding of fairy tales and folklore as well as a true love for language. Each one is beautiful in its own way.
So go. Go and read Nalo Hopkinson now if you haven’t read her already, because it’s not often that an author like this comes along who can so completely capture the imagination. Based on this work alone, I now consider her one of my favourite writers. Her work deserves your attention, too.