36. Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Published in 2010 by Small Beer Press.

Winner of the 2010 Carl Brandon Parallax Award.

Winner of the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award.

Longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

“It is not the known danger that we most fear, the shark that patrols the bay, the lion that rules the savannah. It is the betrayal of what we trust and hold close to our hearts that is our undoing: the captain who staves in the boat, the king who sells his subjects into slavery, the child who murders the parent.”

Paama has fled the gluttonous suffocations of wedded life with her husband, the incessant eater, Ansige. Retreating to her family village of Makhenda, where “a stranger was anyone who could not claim relation to four generations’ worth of bones in the local churchyard,” Paama takes refuge in the comforts of this homestead, turning towards the preparation of sumptuous meals, for which skill she has become deservedly renowned. Her newly-earned equanimity is shattered, however, when Ansige waddles into Makhenda, eager to win back his wife, wreaking havoc on village mascots, corn crops and mortar grinders in the process. In her resolution to sever ties with Ansige, Paama receives an unsolicited gift from the djombi, immortals who observe and often intermingle their stories in the lives of men. Wielder of this present, the Chaos Stick, Paama struggles with the full implications of its power: that of exerting balance amidst the world’s discordancies. She cannot see the indigo-hued djombi who lurks, cloaked in shadow and resentment, intent on reclaiming the sceptre of Chaos, complete with all the power he believes stolen from him.

This remarkable first novel comes with a guide: a wryly humorous, tender-tongued omniscient narrator whose presence in the story is unshakeable. It is through this voice that the reader is ushered in and out of scenes, as if being whispered to gently between the set-changes of a play. Frequently, we are invited to set our minds to the task of furnishing details for the settings invoked by the writer. For instance, in the chapter that introduces us to the indigo lord, the narrator has us conjure the image of a many-pillared hall, studded by striking details yet still surprisingly open to the finishing touches of readerly interpretation.

“Beyond the pillars are more pillars, presumably supporting more roof structures, a whole fleet of upturned boats to the right and to the left of this main enclosure. If there are walls, I cannot see them to give you any report of them. It is supposed to be majestic, the hall of a high lord. Instead, it is empty, sterile and cold, speaking not of present pomp, but of ultimate futility. It proclaims that all is vanity.

There is a throne. The throne is unoccupied.”

If the forays into sideline commentary of this sage speaker ever veer into too-muchness, they prompt less eye-rolling than one might expect. Instead, the method of framing Paama’s revelations is cannily done, leveraged with the wit and perspicacity of the bard-minstrel to whom we listen. This renders the experience of Redemption in Indigo as akin to a courtyard’s fireside rambling, not a structured bookshop discourse.

The characters of Lord’s novel, protagonists and background figures alike, are coloured in with unfaltering precision, with a craftswoman’s devotion and constancy. No hero is devoid of at least one persistent foible; no villain languishes in the abyss of utter depravity. This fullness of fleshing-out applies not merely to the book’s mortals, either: djombi resemble in intention the capricious, world-weary Greek and Roman gods, though they do not seek out their mannerisms, nor the particularities of their origin stories. One of the narrative’s most endearing passages sees the Sisters of a certain arcane House describing Paama’s attributes to a young man assigned the perilous task of tracing her whereabouts. They speak of her courage, compassion, discretion and integrity, adding, too, that “she has the most beautiful dreams”, but are frankly nonplussed when taxed for Paama’s physical appearance. The hint is subtle, yet well-taken: in some sects, at least, impressions of personality weigh most favourably…perhaps they will continue to do so.

A slender fictive work, Redemption in Indigo is told in an even, neatly-trimmed pace, with no chapter likely to be accused of unnecessary padding. Though a minor marvel of economic exuberance, one rather longs for those extra chapters, especially in those scenes where Paama’s journeys scatter her footsteps across the globe, as she tries to parse the complexities of meaning that the Chaos Stick affords. Concepts of chaos and calm are not, however, subject to short shrift; it is to Lord’s credit that she navigates considerations of anarchy and splendour in a shorter novel. Longer creative works often suffer because of their refried bombastic exposition; it is a rare feat to prompt the desire for a story to be cushioned instead of clipped.

Such is the writer’s moulding and mapping of this other-world (that hints at other worlds within and around its terrain, too) that what dissatisfies us for its brevity may be imagined-in, with generous amplitude. It is this vastness of scope and significance, housed in so unassuming a structure, that gives the most pleasurable pause to the pages of Redemption in Indigo. When converging folklores find their waypoint, stories like these are the result: sensitive, personage-driven tellings of arachnid tricksters, divining rods, of the sanctity of sisterhood and the astonishing gifts that may be given to a woman who confronts the unpredictable force that is Chaos itself.

This review is proud to be part of Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe Reading Tour, a truly exciting event that seeks to showcase the broad spectrum of talent in speculative fiction written by authors of colour. A thrilling assortment of novels, short fiction collections and anthologies have been read and reviewed; for the full list of participants, visit the schedule post on Aarti’s book review site, BookLust. 

4 thoughts on “36. Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

  1. I was at the awards ceremony for the Frank Collymore Literary Award in 2008 and remember Karen Lord reading from this book. It was quite difficult to get into the world of the book in a short reading, because there was so much to explain about the universe she had created, but I remember liking the style – I’m sure in the full length book it worked really well.


  2. Pingback: Karen Lord – Redemption in Indigo | Sci-Fi & Fantasy Book Reviews

  3. Pingback: 47. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord | Novel Niche: A Place for Books

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