Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson – Review by Miriam Thomas
There is a great dystopian novel that may have been written long before its time. One that, when written in 1998, uncannily predicted similar situations to present day. The novel I am referring to is Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. In Hopkinson’s debut science fiction novel, she uses the title of an old Caribbean children’s folksong to weave a story of supernatural events in a crumbling lawless metropolitan city in the future. Downtown Toronto has become a poverty-stricken run-down city, after the well-to-do and police have abandoned it. Moving to surrounding cities after years of economic strife led to rioting and violence devastating the inner city. Only the poor, and those who control the poor, remain inside the bordered city unable to escape to a better life. Even though not as apocalyptic, and sans the supernatural element, cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Ferguson could be heading the way of lawlessness, uncontrolled violence, and inner-city devastation depicted in Brown Girl in the Ring.
The story unfolds as the Premier of Ontario needs a heart transplant, and instead of securing a pig heart from the Porcine Organ Harvest Program, a search ensues for a suitable human organ donor, or should we say victim. The bowels of Toronto, called the Burn, are filled with homeless, destitute, and starving people fending daily for themselves by trading and bargaining for goods, and who will do anything for money. Running the organized crime is Rudy, a vile killer given the responsibility of locating a heart for Premier Uttley. Rudy hires Tony, a small time hood with a dope problem and a medical background, to find and cut out the perfect heart for the transplant. Ti-Jeanne, the heroine of the story, has a baby fathered by Tony, and he swears that their relationship can work if they can just escape the wasteland that incarcerates them. However, he can’t seem to break-away from Rudy’s posse and the predicament that he has gotten himself into. Ti-Jeanne convinces her grandmother, Gros-Jeanne, who practices street medicine and black magic, to help Tony. Gros-Jeanne reluctantly decides to help by working her magic and summons the old spirits of the Caribbean to help protect Ti-Jeanne and Tony as they attempt to flee Toronto and Rudy’s vengeance. Using magic of his own, the evil Rudy and his posse thwart Ti-Jeanne and Tony’s escape eventually leading Ti-Jeanne to confront Rudy who turns out to be her grandfather, Gros-Jeanne’s husband. A battle of magic and mysticism ensues as Ti-Jeanne, who has been afraid of her growing spiritualism and visions, battles Rudy and his spirits.
Brown Girl in the Ring was written over 15 years ago and offers readers insight into Afro-Caribbean culture, rituals, and spiritualism. Mixed with Caribbean vernacular and grammar, the story can at times become difficult to understand. Nevertheless, this story is about family, strength, and acceptance; but also demonstrates how evil can take over and destroy humanity. It is rare to see diverse dystopian novels, but I believe Brown Girl in the Ring stands out as one of the best.
After retiring from a 28-year career in the travel and airline industry, Miriam Thomas decided to pursue her long time goal of teaching. She taught fifth and sixth grade English Language Arts for 3 years before returning to school to obtain a Master of Library Science degree, and works as a high school librarian in a large urban city. She is currently seeking a doctorate in Literacy Leadership from Sam Houston State University.