Catherine E. McKinley,
Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World
(Bloomsbury, 2011)

Just to be perfectly clear, Catherine McKinley's Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World is only tangentially about indigo. It's a memoir about the author's quest for the elusive blue fabric and her own identity -- both in Africa and America. If you're looking for a natural history of the indigofera plant, or a comprehensive history of indigo from its earliest uses in the Old World, the brief Wiki page is actually more helpful.

McKinley mentions that during wilderness hikes with her parents, she always felt something missing -- the human connection. And that's exactly what you'll find in Indigo: lots of interesting characters, from McKinley's cheerful Ghanaian friend Eurama, to an Ivory Coast potter, to the trokosi, women held in a particularly disturbing form of ritual servitude. Many of the episodes are fascinating in their own right, like the traditional Ghanaian funeral that occupies a good chunk of the book, but are only loosely related to indigo.

This is a bit frustrating if you were expecting a book about, well, indigo. The memoir is organized (mostly) chronologically, based on McKinley's trip to Africa on a Fulbright grant. What information there is about indigo crops up somewhat haphazardly, with some disorienting jumps in time and lots of digressions as McKinley's attempts to locate genuine indigo are frustrated. (By the time she visits Africa, indigo has been almost entirely replaced by synthetic dyes and imported prints, so she spends most of the book on its disappearing trail.)

Once you accept the idea that Indigo isn't really about indigo, it's an interesting enough travelogue through a part of the world I will probably never visit. McKinley has a nice ear for dialogue and brings the people she meets to life. But the prose occasionally veers towards the purple, leading to dramatic epiphanies about indigo and the meaning of life that completely failed to resonate with me.

Some authors have the power to draw you in completely as they delve into their obsessions over, say, absinthe, or the senses, or poisonous mushrooms. I'm sorry to say that this never happened with Indigo. I never shared McKinley's passion for indigo or found it particularly compelling. Indigo is much more about McKinley's personal quest for the dye than anything else. Some memoirs are simply most interesting to the people who lived them.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

5 November 2011

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