Saturday, March 8, 2014

Redemption in Indigo - Karen Lord

I picked up Karen Lord' second novel The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013)  last year as part of a reading challenge. It was one of the more interesting books I've read for the challenged so Lord ended up on the list of authors I want to read more of. Earlier this year I decided to get a copy of her debut novel Redemption in Indigo. It's one of those books that have gotten quite a bit of attention recently but I hadn't gotten around to reading. Redemption in Indigo was first published in 2010 by Small Beer Press. I have a newer UK edition however, published by Jo Fletcher Books in 2012. Redemption in Indigo won a number of awards, including the Mythopoeic award in 2011. It's quite different from The Best of All Possible Worlds, these two novels show a versatility that that many writers would be jealous of.

The novel tells the story of Paama, a woman who, fed up with her husband's gluttony, has fled back to her family and refuses to return to him. Her husband is not about to let that happen however. He sets out after her and succeeds in making a complete fool of himself. Paama is obviously not going to change her mind but then something happens that will make her see the world in a different light. The undying  ones, or djombi, present her with a gift. A dangerous gift as Paama soon finds out.

I understand that Redemption in Indigo is partly based on a folk tale from Senegal known as Ansige Karamba the Glutton. I had of course never heard of it so I did a few searches to see if there happened to be an English version online. Such stories tend to exist in many variations but it would have been interesting to find one. I came up with nothing however. Maybe I would have had better luck finding a French. Unfortunately I can only count to ten and order coffee in French so it would have been as useless to me as one in say Wolof or Pular. It's quite possibly that there simply is no version out there. It sounds like the kind of story that needs to be listened to rather than read. If anybody does knows where I could find a version please let me know.

Like Asingne's story, Redemption in Indigo is presented as a tale that needs to be listened to. The reader gets told the story by a skilled storyteller, one is not afraid to move back and forth on the time line and cast doubt on the truthfulness of what he is telling the audience. In fact, he struck me as being quite opinionated. He means to entertain. There are all sorts of hints of other tales in the story that he then abandons in favour of Paama's tale. They serve to raise curiosity in his audience. It must have been pretty hard to keep this style going for the entire novel but in some chapters you really feel as if you're around some fire with a group of people completely immersed in the storyteller's tale. The narrator's voice is not that strongly present in the entire novel, some sections read more like a regular third person perspective.

In the early stages of the novel, it is something of a comedy. Asingne's antics are hilarious at times and even the trouble he puts Paama in, is not enough to make me stop grinning. Despite leaving him, she does try to protect him from too much embarrassment. There's more than a bit of tragedy here as well. Her husband seems to think he is entitled to the attention Paama pays to him and the lengths she goes to to provide him with the comforts he desires. His ways will eventually get him what he deserves in a way but Paama's attention is also more than he deserves.

Later on in the novel the tone gets much more serious. Paama is drawn into a conflict between djombi and their power is such, that their games are very dangerous to mere mortals. One of the djombi wants Paama to hand over her gift to him, a gift he feels was his power to begin with. In his attempt to get Paama to hand it over he shows her things about the world that change her outlook on life. But she is not without her influence either. His view of humanity is, which he held in very low regard until meeting Paama, changes profoundly. As Asingne should already have figured out, she is quite a special woman.

Redemption in Indigo is an unusual book in many respects. There is the way the story is told, with a very present narrator and a myriad of side plots that seem to go nowhere but are somehow essential to the novel. There is the elusive strong female main character that the fantasy genre is trying so hard to find. There is African inspired setting and mythological influences that you only rarely find in English language literature. All of this and more Lord manages to put into a relatively short novel. The book is so many things that don't usually come up when people think fantasy that is should really open the reader's eyes about what is possible in fantastical literature. It is quite simply a great read. For anybody who wants more out of the genre than your typical Tolkienesque epic fantasy, this novel is a must read.

Book Details
Title: Redemption in Indigo
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Pages: 280
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-78087-308-4
First published: 2010


  1. It is unfortunate "Ansige Karamba the Glutton" is unavailable in other channels besides collections of Senegalese folk tales. Very often the author's intent is bound up in dialogue with such tales and legends, and for those unfamiliar with the root material, a lot can pass by unawares. I'm reminded of Amitav Ghosh's The Circle of Reason. There is a section of the book wherein Ghosh plays with the idea of an Indian legend, and if the reader is unfamiliar with said legend, the whole section seems extraneous, but is in fact integral to the whole.

    Your review has pushed me over the edge: it seems the hype surrounding Lord is real and I need to read her. As you've read both her novels, which do you recommend starting with?

  2. I don't think it matters that much. They are very different books really and completely unrelated. The Best of All Possible Worlds is something of a social science fiction story. I enjoyed that one a lot too but for different reasons than Redemption in Indigo. I think it is more likely Redemption in Indigo will be the one she'll be remembered for though.