Sunday, July 24, 2011

Book Review: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

I received a copy of Redemption in Indigo from Small Beer Press last year but didn't read it immediately. That was clearly a mistake.

In a lot of way, this novel by Karen Lord captures a lot of what I want to discuss when it comes to World SF (a problematic term, I know, but it's what I have to work with right now without delving into a longer discussion, so bear with me). Take for example another problematic definition: magic-realism. There is both value and valid criticism with the term and it's easy to pigeonhole works like Redemption in Indigo as falling under that sub-genre in much the same way a lot of Philippine fiction like the fiction of Dean Francis Alfar or Joy Dayrit can be described as such. But that assumes there is a rigid formula and set of tropes that can easily be mimicked or identified--or that such interpretations is common across all cultures. Magic-realism is usually associated with (but not limited to) Gabriel Garcia Marquez yet in many ways, Lord's writing is the complete opposite. Marquez overwhelms you with vivid details while Lord is brief and concise. The former features lengthy, convoluted histories with genealogies that blend together while the latter features a growing cast but presents them in such a way that's easy to follow. A Hundred Years of Solitude doesn't attempt to explain the fantastical elements while Redemption in Indigo applies scientific principles in key moments to explain how magic works. Yet despite these stark differences, there are elements in the narrative that might identify Redemption in Indigo--at least to a Western reader--as a magic-realist novel.

And what are these elements? Is it the combination of the fantastical with the mundane and how the latter does not bat an eyelash when the former is presented? Is it the nature of the setting, someplace local and rural, a stark contrast to the settings of a lot of urban fantasies? There is also the style and tone to consider for while Lord is perhaps not as verbose as certain Latin American authors, her technique has a certain beauty and finesse that ensnares, throttles, and tickles the imagination. These contradictions and cues doesn't really define what magic-realism is, although it could be used as a crutch.

Now I'm a complete ignoramus when it comes to the culture Lord is writing from but Redemption in Indigo immediately conveys this to the reader. It's not just the presence of the mythology or the practices of her characters, but it's in the subtle details and authorial choices. What's immediately striking is how the story evokes the art of the oral narrative, not just in the way a story is passed on from an uncle to his son or a grandmother to her granddaughter, but through the mystery of an omniscient yet intimate narrator who is not afraid of breaking the fourth wall. There's the length of the book (which is relatively short) for example and it's a trend that I find common with novelists from the Philippines. There's also the nature of morality in the novel, for while the narrator identifies the presence of a "villain" in the book, the conflict is really of a different kind, not what would typically be classified as good vs. evil or even the gray morality of noir and modern epic fantasies. The presence of syncretism is also another key identifier.

While there is much to be praised when it comes to the cultural value and authenticity of the book, what really excites me is how this is compelling and exciting writing. In the first few pages, Lord immediately catches your attention, and she does this through judicial use of flash forwards (an underused technique) and flashbacks (it's also worth mentioning at how in the latter part of the book, the author eschews these technique as it's no longer necessary to hook the reader). There is the slow build-up of the cast and what seemed like a small and private party quickly spirals into a huge gathering of major and minor characters who surprisingly retain their significance from start to end. It's impressive at how the narrator lies and attempts to deceive the reader yet Lord makes it work: for example, the ending professes to be didactic but the author actually holds back some crucial information and leaves hints for readers to figure out (the epilogue, for example, is the closest thing to hitting the reader with the book, but is presented in such a way that's still restrained). Lastly, there is the juggling act of writing a story with depth and including humor that doesn't draw attention to itself.

It's also refreshing to read a narrative that features a strong female protagonist, not in the stereotypical fashion of the alpha female or the overly sexualized heroine, but one that is holistic and embraces propriety, domesticity, curiosity, and vulnerability.

Redemption in Indigo is to be praised on many levels but what really strikes home is that despite all the agendas and baggage we bring when reading such a novel, this is really a fun book with its ability to combine comedy, a sense of mythic-ness, gravity, and sheer elegance.

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