Full fathom five
By Lisa Allen-Agostini
The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson
(Warner Books, ISBN-10: 0-446-576-913, ISBN-13: 978-0446-576-918,
Nalo Hopkinson. Photograph courtesy Hachette Book Group
Like many of her previous works, Nalo Hopkinson’s newest novel, The New Moon’s Arms, is a genre-bender. It successfully straddles speculative, feminist, and literary fiction — but this novel is perhaps the closest to popular fiction that someone as experimental as Hopkinson has yet come. Set in the Caribbean island group of Cayaba, which includes the fictional Dolorosse, Blessée, and Cayaba islands, the story is a few months in the life of Calamity, a proto-feminist who is full of contradictions. She was a teenage mother who never wanted to be one, but adopts a foundling when she’s going through menopause; a liberated woman bound by chains of family obligation and the old double standard; a homophobe in love with a gay person. It is a rich and skillful characterisation of a mature woman, perhaps one of Hopkinson’s weakest women in a way, but also among her strongest, because, unlike so many Hopkinson heroines, Calamity is just a woman, not a god. Her mission is not to save the world, just herself.
In comparison to her last book, The Salt Roads, this is a much less ambitious work. Calamity’s story is a domestic one, set in the contemporary Caribbean, with minimal flashbacks and crosscurrents. It opens with the death of her father, a bitter man who cut off Calamity as a pregnant teen, but ultimately needed her care when he was old and sick. Like so many women, she gave up her life to be at her ailing father’s side, only to find her life empty and unfulfilling at his death. As the novel progresses, her empty life becomes filled with new relationships and old relationships change tenor, until the Calamity of the book’s start has virtually become a new woman. Well, she’s on her way, at least.
Hopkinson’s specialty is speculative fiction, and her works have been prize-winners. Skin Folk, a short story collection she published in 2001, was named best collection in the World Fantasy Awards, and a New York Times Best Book of the Year; Midnight Robber (2000) was a New York Times Recommended Book of Summer 2000, and received an honorable mention for the Casa de las Americas Prize, among other prestigious citations.
Her books usually have complex mythologies based on African and Caribbean sources. The Salt Roads, for example is a cross-generational, global story of the birth of a goddess, Ezili, and her manifestations in pre-revolutionary Haiti, bohemian nineteenth-century France, and Egypt in the early Christian era. While The New Moon’s Arms is also about a mythological creature, and does contain some quasi-historical setting, the scope is much smaller and easier to digest. Simply put, Calamity butts up on a merchild — a mermaid’s son — and it changes her life.
The new novel has clear echoes of the work that went into The Salt Roads. The merfolk are fat, with silky, brown skin, and thick dreadlocks decorated with shells. In The Salt Roads, Ezili is described in one incarnation as “fat and well-fed. The bush of her hair tumbled around her round, brown, beautiful face in plaits and dreadknots, tied with twists of seaweed.” Ezili is a moon goddess, echoed in the title of the new book. Though salt as a substance is not central to the new book’s narrative — as it is in The Salt Roads, where it signals the difference between god and man — it does come into play in The New Moon’s Arms, because the sea is pivotal to the story’s many plotlines. The sea is benevolent and cruel, giving life and taking it away with equal ease in the mythological back-story, as well as the modern setting.
Oddly enough, the merchild is not the weirdest part of the story (weird as in supernatural). Calamity’s father’s death has caused such a psychic dislocation in her that she recovers a childhood gift for finding lost things. But instead of, say, a butterfly hairclip that had slipped down behind a sofa cushion, Calamity has suddenly got the ability to resurrect dead trees, drowned orchards, and destroyed friendships.
This novel’s strength is its easy tone. Hopkinson is an excellent writer with an ear for dialogue, in this case delivered in a number of different registers of class and nationality. Calamity’s own voice as narrator is easy to read, a delicious blend of different kinds of Caribbean English, reflecting the author’s childhood growing up as the daughter of Slade Hopkinson, the celebrated Jamaican thespian who worked in Trinidad and Guyana before moving to Canada when Nalo was a teen. Calamity’s preoccupation with menopause, her relationships with lovers and her family, put this book into the category of chick-lit, but it’s not as simple as that. Though the core of the story is about her relationships, there’s so much else going on that it resists that definition. For example, one of the subplots is concerned with Cayaba’s development and its effects on the environment and culture.
That subplot is partly embodied in the character of Caroline Sookdeo-Grant, a politician who appears on TV, saying:
Cayaba should be moving very carefully in any dealings we make with foreign multinationals or accepting more foreign aid. The FFWD [her political party] demands that we reduce trade restrictions as a condition of lending us money. This allows foreign multinationals such as Gilmor Saline to grow unchecked in our country, forcing small farmers out of business. What will happen to the independent small salt farms on Dolorosse and the other islands? Will they be priced out of business? Forced to seek work in the Gilmor factory for minimum wage?
Elsewhere, other characters mouth phrases that expose Cayaba as the playground of rich foreigners, a fate it shares with too many real Caribbean islands.
Hopkinson achieved fame with her imaginative conception of futuristic societies, such as the outer-space planet of New Half-Way Tree in Midnight Robber. She bolstered that reputation with the historical epic The Salt Roads. It was fascinating to see how she dealt with a contemporary character and setting. Has she been as successful in this latest endeavour? Compared to her best work, The New Moon’s Arms comes across as light and fluffy. But is that a bad thing? It certainly is easier to read. In the end, she stays true to her roots as a writer committed to subverting the genre of speculative fiction to bring attention to Caribbean women’s strengths and challenges.
Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Trinidadian writer of poetry, fiction, and drama. She is currently working on a teen action-adventure manuscript and a historical crime novel set in Trinidad. She writes a weekly column for the Trinidad Guardian.