Sunday, January 27, 2008

New Moon's Arms, Nalo Hopkinson

From reading fiction, you'd think our planet is pretty small: there's the American Big City, the American Suburb, the American Northern Rural, and the American Southern Rural. Most books (that aren't set in completely imaginary realms such as fantasy or outer space) seem to be set in one of those places. So it's always a treat to read a story set in a different place, a place with the air of the exotic. Nalo Hopkinson has written a contemporary fantasy set in the Carribean for us. It's a simple tale, but it is just a few degrees off normal for contemporary fantasies, and those slight deviations make for an enjoyable read.

Simply setting a story in the Carribean is exotic, as years of adverts have told us. Avram Davidson achieved some of the same effects (with more fright and less humour) by setting short stories in Central America. In New Moon's Arms, Calamity lives on an island, where she has cared for her ailing father for a few years. The island isn't large, and the ocean is ever-present. To get to her job, or the hospital, or a shopping mall, Calamity has to take either a water taxi or her own boat. The ocean pervades the story in every detail with its moods and gifts. One of the gentlemen that Calamity gets involved with is a marine biologist, the boy that she adopts comes from the water, and storms punctuate scenes and conflicts in the story.

Calamity herself is no normal heroine. Most fantasy heroines are either bad girls with hearts of gold, or noble young women with hearts of gold. They tend to be very accepting of difference, and caring to all their kind allies. Calamity is an older woman, unhappily approaching menopause. She is homophobic, mean to her daughter, and has a cruel tongue. She is also genuinely caring, especially to her nephew and her adoptive charge, and will to do what it takes to do good works. She cared for her estranged father for years before his death (his funeral opens the novel), and will even patch things up with a school-girl enemy in order to get her adoptee the care he needs. This is not the same as having a heart of gold - she does her good deeds grudgingly, and lashes out at those who try to help her. Many reviews have called her "flawed," but I would say instead that she is real. We know folks who don't understand themselves, who act and react inappropriately. They're not bad or evil; they're real and conflicted, and maybe a bit immature. Calamity grows a lot over the course of the story, coming to accept her own aging and the help of others, as well as the magic that is surrounding her and pervading her life.

The magic is directly related to her aging. As she begins to experience menopause, along with hot flashes she gets objects from her past materializing. Not just small things like dishes and toys, but also an entire orchard. As a young girl she had been a "finder," one who is preternaturally good at finding lost things. When her mother disappeared she lost the ability, but now it is coming back with a vengeance. A young boy is among her more dramatic finds. She finds him washed up on the shore after a storm (during which she'd fallen asleep on the beach after drinking herself silly). He has some odd physiological features (rough patches on his legs, oddly webbed feet) and doesn't speak any known human language. Calamity suspects that he might be a child of the mer-folk that legends (and her own childhood memories) say live around the islands. She makes sure that he stays with her, where she can investigate further, instead of being adopted to a big island or mainland couple.

Throughout, the world that Calamity inhabits is our real world. She uses cell phones to contact the big island and the internet to do research. Her nephew attaches a camera to a remote plane to take aerial photographs for a school project. The father of Calamity's daughter lives with his long-time gay partner on the big island. This isn't an abstract or parallel fantasy realm that is allergic to technology. In this story the magical and technological live side by side, not acknowledging each other unless they have to. This is a phenomenon so common in Western society that we often fail to see it: today you can fax or email a prayer request to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and a rabbi there will take the print-out and stick it in a niche in the wall. You can do the same thing for the grotto at Lourdes. It's only when you read stories like this one, that appear slightly exotic, that you see how amazing that is.

New Moon's Arms is straightforward, and quick to read. There isn't much complication in the structure, there aren't a ridiculous number of sub-plots (although there are two interwoven stories, both with a mythic feel, dealing with the mer-folk), and everything gets basically tied up in the end. The boy's fate is satisfactorily determined, and Calamity moves ever so slightly closer to maturity as she moves through menopause. It talks about real things and fantastic things with a great sense of humor. Hopkinson's prose is wonderfully easy to read with a beautiful rhythm to it. Her characters speak with a distinctive cant and phrasing, but she doesn't take her dialect transcription to extremes. Perhaps she sacrifices some accuracy for readability, but I much prefer her way. As simple as it is it may be considered slight, but it is enjoyable and different and helps us see the world from a slightly different perspective.

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