Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (Warner/Aspect, 1998)

Winner of the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest for Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson has established herself as a promising new writer. Her book, a futuristic fantasy set in Toronto, is a spicy, magical blend.

In the not-so-distant future, Metropolitan Toronto's governmental and economic infrastructures have collapsed, turning the city into an unwilling enclave for those unable to get out. The inhabitants do what they can to get by: bartering, gardening, and trapping or shooting small animals are some of the ways that they manage. The streets are ruled by the Posse, run by a boss, Rudy, who operates from quarters at the top of the CN building.

Ti-Jeanne, a young, new and single mother, lives here with her grandmother, a healer and herbalist. Ti-Jeanne has been having visions, many of them frightening and all of them strange. She is afraid to tell anyone about them, even her grandmother. Meanwhile, Tony, her baby's father, is still running with Rudy's posse. Ti-Jeanne, thanks in part to her strong-willed grandmother, will have nothing to do with him until he straightens himself out. What Ti-Jeanne doesn't know is that Tony has new assignment from Rudy: to find a healthy young woman to donate a heart for Ontario's premier -- involuntarily, of course. She also doesn't know that Rudy has chosen her to be the donor.

Ti-Jeanne is unwillingly drawn into a world of magic and spirits rooted in the Afro-Caribbean folklore which is her heritage -- a heritage she has neglected. Her odyssey takes her all over the city before her final confrontation with Rudy.

Hopkinson was born in the Caribbean and moved to Canada in her teens. She draws on her own Afro-Caribbean background for her story. The narrative is written in dialect, an extremely difficult device to use, but the reader is soon so caught up in the cadence that it is eventually no longer noticed. Hopkinson's story is a series of powerful images, and the language reinforces these images rather than detracts from them. The reader becomes bound up with the characters, particularly Ti-Jeanne, whose personality changes from insular, self-centered and limited to strong and visionary.

This is the kind of book that stays with you long after you close the cover. It reminds us of how we need not only to look up and look ahead, but also to remember from where we came.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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