By Donna Bailey Nurse
Brown Girl in the Ring
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson takes place in a Toronto of the not too distant future that has been ravaged by riots and abandoned by its wealthier inhabitants. Companies and banks have departed, as have the police and medical services. The city stinks of outhouses (the sanitation workers have gone too) and reels from a battery of constant crime. A gang lord named Rudy Sheldon has replaced local government. He rules through a posse of stupid, violent men.
Even though we are some years into the millennium – Hopkinson doesn’t specify- the city remains unsettlingly familiar. Rudy runs his evil operation from inside the CN Tower, and Ti-Jeanne, the novel’s young heroine, resides with her grandmother in the façade of a house on the Riverdale Farm. Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother, Gros-Jeanne, raises goats and chickens. She also grows plants and herbs for her healing practice. A bush-doctor in the Afro-Carib tradition, Gros-Jeanne boasts visionary powers.
Ti-Jeanne has visions as well. But she rejects her grandmother’s attempts to pass on her special inheritance. Ti-Jeanne wants nothing to do with the past or family traditions. Rather she would happily reunite with Tony, the mother of her baby, and move as a family to the suburbs.
Hopkinson’s novel could be described as social-science fiction. But it smoothly encompasses a variety of genres. The premise, for example, is reminiscent of Jonathan Swift satirical essays: Ontario’s premier is in need of a heart transplant and the hospital nefariously asks Rudy to find them a fresh urban victim. Rudy in turn orders Tony to murder a healthy person and extract the heart. Instead, Tony, terrified, asks Gros-Jeanne to help him escape the city. Brown Girl in the Ring evolves into a spine-chilling story that draws Rudy’s dark powers into conflict with Afro-Caribbean spirituality.
Perhaps more than other genres, sci-fi carries the burden of expounding a message. But Hopkinson’s tonal control enables her to elude this pitfall. Though the words Toronto and riots recall the city’s 1992 melee over Rodney King, and though posse is a favourite buzzword for those who like to link Jamaicans with crime, and though a significant portion of the remaining Toronto residents possess Caribbean heritage, race remains a subtle backdrop.
One comes away with a strong sense of the suffering city’s tenacious spirit of community. Without money, people barter for goods. They take over public parks and build farms. Street children protect one another and ailing individuals turn to midwives and healers like Gros-Jeanne. In the midst of evil and destruction, suggests Hopkinson, one discovers alcoves of kindness.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in Quill&Quire.