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Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson, Warner Aspect, 1998, 250 pp.

Brown Girl in the Ring is the winner of Warner Aspect's First Novel Contest, and the hype for this particular contest makes up a good deal of the cover copy. The blurb informs us that Hopkinson's book beat out nearly a thousand other entries to get published. I'm actually surprised that there weren't more entries -- even at 1000 competitors, the odds are better than the slush pile, where there's no guarantee of even one book being published. How does Hopkinson's book match up to its hype? Very well, in fact, though it is a flawed novel. Hopkinson's career is certainly off to an auspicious beginning, and I'm keen to see where her muse will lead her next.

Ti-Jeanne is the title character of the book, and she is sympathetic and interesting from the start. Her story is the story of the underdog, which is a tried and true method of capturing the readers' attention. Ti-Jeanne lives in a central Toronto where the flight to suburbia has gone to its logical extreme; the inner city is an unregulated area, which is played ambivalently in the novel (more on that in a minute). Ti-Jeanne is trying to avoid Tony, with whom she has a child that Tony does not know about. Tony is an addict and is also involved in a local posse of drug dealers led by Rudy. Rudy has been hired by some corrupt officials of the provincial government (which is conveniently located outside of downtown Toronto at this point) to find a "volunteer" heart donor for the ailing leader of the province. This task is soon delegated to Tony, who understandably wants out of the deal. Part of the story becomes the rapprochement between Tony and Ti-Jeanne and their attempted flight out of the inner city (the burbs are guarded). There is also a good deal of history between Rudy and Ti-Jeanne's grandmother, Mami (or Gros-Jeanne), which works itself out into a concluding confrontation between the forces of good, Ti-Jeanne and friends, and Rudy and his henchman. This climax takes place in the upper levels of the CN Tower, which makes this section reminiscent of Tanya Huff's Blood Lines.

As I've stated, Ti-Jeanne is the main character, and she carries the book well. She starts out as troubled young girl, down on her luck, fearful, and a little intimidated by Mami. Her ascent out of powerlessness is what makes the book so attractive, but this ascent is sudden, which is one of the shortcomings of the book. Hopkinson would have done well to spend more time on making Ti-Jeanne's self-discovery, that part of her self-confidence that then affects the world, more believable. In terms of the mechanics of the plot, she comes into external power quickly as well, which is explained but not to my complete satisfaction. Ti-Jeanne interacts with a relatively small group of characters, and the connections between these people are well-developed and interesting. These characters fall loosely into certain stereotypes (the wise grandmother, the studly but no-good boyfriend, and so forth), but Hopkinson plays with the parameters enough to keep the proceedings lively. Brown Girl in the Ring belongs more with something like The Einstein Intersection than some generic fantasy in terms of its characters.

Hopkinson accomplishes some good work with language in Brown Girl in the Ring. The narrative voice is a standard third-person omniscient in conventional English, but the majority of the characters speak in their own version of English amongst themselves. This has variations, however; Mami's role as the local healer plays into this: "'Come. Bring her inside," Mami said, switching to the more standard English she used when speaking to non-Caribbean people" (63). Ti-Jeanne and Mami know "standard" English, but choose to use their own flavour. In some ways, Hopkinson has the same goal as Marlene Nourbese Philip in the book She Tries Her Tongue, a book which sets out to destroy all of the structures and injustices of English as a language -- patriarchy, colonialism, and so forth -- and all at once. Hopkinson makes a smaller gesture in that direction, but it's still an important voice, recentering the margin.

The setting of Brown Girl in the Ring has its own interesting aspects as well. As I said, the Toronto of the future has taken ghettoization to its extreme. The power structure is on the outside, and the marginalized are on the inside and the yearn for the better life on the outside. Ironically, and I don't raise this point to advocate ghettoization, Mami leads the flourishing of a vibrant culture of natural healing and oral traditions, a transplanted culture, the medical aspect of which would be strictly regulated or stamped out in the "advanced" health system on the outside. Also, there is no discernible police presence in inner Toronto, which, considering the swing towards fascism on the outside, is also a good thing. Rudy turns out to be Mami's personal problem, and it is eventually settled in-family. This is all a bit troublesome. This situation is complicated further by the fate of Premier Uttley, the harsh leader of the province. At the end, Uttley gets an infusion of common sense, a la Jesus of Montreal (not to give too much away). This is a redemption of the centre by the margin, as the wisdom of someone like Mami affects the power structure. But for all the pain of the book and its inhabitants, Hopkinson waves her authorial hands at this point and says everything will be ok because Uttley implements a change in tactics. In other words, the hegemony of authority remains, and we're supposed to think that matters will change. I don't see change happening quite so easily. This, along with the brevity of some of Ti-Jeanne's character arc, are what make Brown Girl in the Ring somewhat frustrating. The book has a beautiful set-up, solid characterization, but perhaps a bit of a letdown in its ending.

Last modified: January 16, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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