Book Review: Brown Girl in the Ring

Nalo Hopkinson’s first novel, Brown Girl in The Ring (1998), a novel published by Warner Aspect, is 256 pages of twists and turns filled with Afro-Caribbean culture that brings folklore and magical realism to life. Her enthralling story was selected as the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest, and accelerated her career as a feminist science fiction author. Since the selection, Hopkinson’s novel has received critical acclaim in the form of a Locus Award for Best First Novel and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1999, as well as approval from renowned author Octavia Butler. Hopkinson is of Jamaican descent and she grew up in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, the United States, and Canada.

The setting of Brown Girl in The Ring is not utopian in nature. Riots of the past have caused the inner city of Toronto to collapse into a slum of poverty, homelessness, and violence. While the elite and city officials have fled to the suburbs, children are left to fend for themselves and survive on the streets that are ruled by Rudy Sheldon and his posse of criminal thugs. Disappearances and murder are not uncommon, and everyone is left to either fend for themselves or band together to provide support for each other.

Hopkinson then introduces the heroine of the story, and a very different perspective of life in the outskirt of the city is seen. Ti-Jeanne, the granddaughter of Gros-Jeanne, is struggling with very different problems than street survival. Having recently given birth to a baby boy, Ti-Jeanne has moved back in with her grandmother to care for her child as a single mother because the child’s father, Tony, suffers from addiction and is a member of the posse. While she loves her Mami, she has difficulty seeing the importance of her grandmother’s spiritualism and medicinal work, and is frightened by her visions of death. Gros-Jeanne has gone to great lengths in the past to share her culture with her family, but has continuously been pushed away by her daughter and granddaughter.

Paths begin to cross when Tony is called upon by Rudy. Hopes of leaving his criminal life behind and reconnecting with his love, Ti-Jeanne, are shattered due to the threats from the posse leader looming over him. Tony must perform a horrific act of murder to obtain a heart to save the life of one of the city’s elite. The situation only gets worse when he involves his relationship with Ti- and Gros-Jeanne.

The magic comes alive for the rest of the novel when Tony seeks help from the spiritualism of Gros-Jeanne. In attempts to save Tony, Ti-Jeanne performs the rituals alongside her Mami and accepts her father spirit. When plans go awry, Tony makes a rash decision that forces Ti-Jeanne to be the one to save herself and the city from Rudy’s evil spiritual acts.

Ti-Jeanne’s personal growth throughout the novel is evident in her attitude toward her elders, culture, and outlook on life. Through acceptance of her ancestry and culture, she finds power and support to overcome steep odds and end the horrific violence of the posse and their heinous leader, despite her personal connection to the man who took her mother away from her at a young age. The story closes with hope, Ti-Jeanne’s victory is monumental, and the stolen heart possesses the power to permanently change the city of Toronto for the better.

The power of women of color feminism and the use of magic, “Obeah,” or seer women, are major themes throughout this novel. Nalo Hopkinson has done a marvelous job of presenting strong female characters who take control of their fate to make change in the world. Her novel is a work of feminist science fiction because it shows a very realistic perception of the struggles women face as single mothers as well as the struggles women with different cultural beliefs face in society. However, it shows their ability to use their culture, background, and experiences as women to overcome obstacles and show the true strength women possess. In addition, themes of community and systemic economic disadvantage run throughout the scenes with the street children. The compassion and heartache written in those scenes reminds readers that there is strength when we band together for a common goal and to put less focus on obtaining material items to achieve happiness and genuine relationships.

This book is well-written and exciting to read, and I recommend it especially to those who want to experience science fiction through the lens of a different culture. On a personal note, I found the novel to be difficult to read at times due to the Caribbean dialect and use of phonetic spelling when the characters were speaking out loud to one another. My initial frustration though was eased once the characters were more developed and I could see how the conversations and word choices illuminated the type of relationship held between characters. Other than the conversational prose, I found the book to be easy to read and enlightening on folklore of other cultures I was unfamiliar with. The book is unique compared to other works of feminist science fiction, because it draws on the ancestry of a different past and opens up perspectives that have yet to be shared in the science fiction community.

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One response to “Book Review: Brown Girl in the Ring

  • cstabile

    What a great summary of the plot and the main themes of this wonderful novel. I’m not sure if the first part of the novel is difficult because of the use of language (and I prefer that to dialect, which is always code for that which is other) or if it’s challenging because there’s so much that needs to be established about the characters, their culture, and the situations in which they find themselves. There are some novels whose narrative rhythms take some getting used to before you can adjust to the tempo of the text — they make you work for that rhythm in ways worth thinking about.

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