By Robert Edison Sandiford
Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord
(Small Beer Press, ISBN 978-193152066-9, 199 pp)
Karen Lord. Photograph by Risée N.C. Chaderton, courtesy Small Beer Press
I’m iffy about prologues and epilogues. Ancient appendages with a legitimate lineage, but one nevertheless wonders: why not simply start your story and end it? Why, to quote from a poem by Carolle Bourne about two coy lovers — so often like writer and reader — “the silly subterfuge”? Barbadian writer Karen Lord seems to answer this question with assurance in her debut novel, Redemption in Indigo. Her introduction is a set-up, for what has already come to pass and for what is to come, and is meant to engage the reader directly.
The novel’s orality, another traditional hook, is also strong. Although not everyone may appreciate precocious intrusiveness or literary broadsides, her narrator, a storyteller, is intriguing, intelligent, fun, funny — well, the story she tells is. It is based on a Senegalese folk tale about an independent-minded woman who discards a bad husband.
The setting of Lord’s version, which is rather different from the original, is the hypothetical village of Makendha. But don’t be fooled, as the narrator might say: for all its “once upon a time” fantasy, this is a familiar, cosmopolitan, Barbadian/Caribbean world — and no less exotic for that. Spice tree bark stands in for mauby, khus-khus grass and godhorses are mentioned by name, and the contentious Chaos Stick — a magic wand whose “loss” really gets the action going — takes the shape of a cornmeal coucou stick, which is only inevitable. (When it rains during clear skies — when there’s a sunshower — Bajans say the devil and his wife are fighting for this common kitchen utensil.)
There are plenty of in-jokes in Redemption in Indigo, not all in celebration of the local. When the indigo lord goes undercover as a noble to retrieve the Chaos Stick taken from him as a form of censure, he could be mistaken for the late Prince of Pop, Michael Jackson: “Taran showed his face once . . . during the interview; after that he covered himself entirely, robes, gloves, boots, and veiled headdress with his eyes glinting beyond a rectangle mesh. He looked like a desert prince travelling incognito.” Taran, we are further told, means “‘star’ in the local language.”
The true lead — modern woman and a wonderful cook — is Paama. Ansige is her fool of a husband, though his fatally gluttonous appetite makes him most dangerous to himself after twelve years of marriage. The other person of interest is Kwame, a fine and honourable tracker. The indigo lord, also known as Chance, is one of a handful of “undying ones” whose abilities and purpose seem vaguely aligned with those of Neil Gaiman’s characters The Endless from his Sandman graphic novels.
The connection may not be so tenuous. Gaiman sought to push the boundaries of comics from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s with stories moored to world mythology. Redemption in Indigo considers what is possible with the Barbadian or Caribbean novel, and it does so to the literature’s great benefit. Lord’s language is occasionally conventional, dulled by easy observations. Yet her narrator is in clear control. Hear her quote a senior member of her trade: “You must never tell people their own stories. They have no interest in them, or they think they can tell them better themselves. Give them a stranger’s life, and then they’re content.” These and many other references to a storyteller’s role suggest that, for all that has been accomplished by writers like Kamau Brathwaite, Timothy Callender, and James Carmichael (to beat home drums first), there is much more, as Brathwaite suspects, to our “fairy tales and nancy stories,” to the alien allure of Caribbean speculative fiction.
One of the novel’s Big Questions is this: what situations could humankind effect with, say, an instrument like the Chaos Stick? And would we know what aspects of a situation to influence in order to achieve a favourable outcome? The wielding of chaos is a fickle thing, whose great power requires more than great responsibility. It requires compassion and restraint. “I used it [the Chaos Stick] to save a boy from drowning. You used it to drown an army of men,” Paama says to the indigo lord during one of their saucy exchanges. He replies: “I am sure that they all, boy and army, got exactly what they deserved.”
The indigo lord is not so careless of humankind. “Not all of human taste is abhorrent. There are bits that are enjoyable.” He and Paama are a little too cosy in conversation; he is less menacing than he really should be, and she too bantering. Even so, Paama is able to sense guilt in him and a weakness for sweetness that is difficult to suppress regardless of his guise.
While everything converges rather tidily in Redemption in Indigo — Kwame’s quest for Paama with Paama’s “return” to Ansige with the indigo lord’s attempt to retrieve far more than the Chaos Stick — the narrator’s response to how much of human life is ruled by fate, choice, chaos, or chance is hasty. “And yet, as the undying ones know and as humans too often forget, even chaos cannot overcome choice,” she says. This feels like a misstep on Lord’s part, as is the subsequent apologia for characters who lack stronger emotions or convictions, like the neo-feminist Paama, or who move like game pieces rather than full-blooded beings, like the courtly Kwame. Sometimes a writer must trust the reader, not be led astray by the teller.
A minor complaint? Probably, like my issue with narrative bookends. Lord’s novel is very sprightly from start to finish, with vivid descriptions, memorable heroes and villains, brisk pacing — and an “authorised” epilogue that raises goosebumps along with expectations for a sequel. Iffy or not, that’s clever storytelling.
Robert Edison Sandiford is the author of six books, including The Tree of Youth and Other Stories and the graphic novel Great Moves. He is the editor, with Linda M. Deane, of Shouts from the Outfield: The ArtsEtc Cricket Anthology. The recipient of Barbados’s Governor General’s Award for literature, he has worked as a journalist, publisher, video producer, and teacher.