Today’s the day when Simon and Gav of The Readers podcast focus on Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo in their Summer Book Club series. I joined them as a guest in the discussion part of the episode, which you can hear after an interview with Lord Gav’s and Simon’s own thoughts. And here’s a review of the book from me…
Redemption in Indigo is Karen Lord’s interpretation/extension of a Senegalese folktale. We begin with the gluttonous Ansige tracking down his wife Paama, who had left him; after being tricked and humiliated three times by djombi (spirit creatures, ‘gods’), Ansige takes his leave. That’s where the traditional folktale ends. Lord then continues Paama’s story by having a djombi present her with the Chaos Stick, an artefact which can manipulate the small possibilities of chaos – and Paama uses it with some skill. But the Chaos Stick was stolen from another djombi, the indigo lord, who rather wants it back; he takes Paama on a journey to show her the dangers of the chaos stick – but ends up learning lessons of his own as well.
Lord’s novel is written as though being spoken aloud by a storyteller, and this unknown narrator frequently interjects to address the reader directly; as here, when a djombi (in the form of a spider) makes itself known to human characters for the first time:
I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known? For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase “I am a pawnbroker” in any known human language? Think! These creatures do not truly talk, nor are they truly animals, but they do encounter human folk, and when they do, they carefully take with them all memory of the meeting. (pp. 20-1)
I just love this: it says to readers that they must accept the book on its own terms, must take the time to appreciate how it works. This kind of interjection would normally derail a novel completely, but it’s integral to the project of Redemption in Indigo; and, once you get into the rhythm of the book, I think it’s nigh-on impossible not to be carried along.
Redemption in Indigo balances traditional roots with what feels a very contemporary take on the folktale form.For one thing, Lord includes modern details – antacid chews, buses – in a setting that nevertheless seems timeless; it doesn’t feel forced or strange that she has done this – it’s just that the specific temporal markers are largely irrelevant. Redemption in Indigo also feels contemporary because it has underpinnings in quantum physics. That’s the level on which the Chaos Stick works, and the indigo lord is keen to show Paama that tiny changes can have far-reaching – and sometimes unintended – consequences. It’s an archetypal ‘character learns better’ scenario, but placed in a scientific framework.
So the plot of Lord’s novel is all about choices and having multiple options; but this theme is embedded even deeper in the text. The narrator is at pains to point out that this story has a moral, but rather less eager be specific what that moral is. The tale is left open, in terms of what we are to think about it (‘I have no way of knowing which of these characters will most capture your attention and sympathy,’ pp. 265-6) and its ending (‘Do I have more stories to tell? There are always more stories,’ p. 266) – but even that isn’t left to stand, as the epilogue brings a more novelistic conclusion. As in quantum theory, multiple possibilities exist within the text, yet to collapse into something definitive.
Redemption in Indigo is a novel of contradictions: written yet spoken; defiantly ragged but carefully controlled; a book that swears to your face it’s didactic whilst telling you to nothing but make up your own mind. It embraces yet subverts the folktale form by giving its comic beginning a certain dramatic weight by the end, and turning its characters (both human and djombi) into rounded individuals who can learn from and teach each other in equal measure. And it’s enormous fun to read; heartily recommended.