47. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Published by Del Rey in 2013.

Would you care for a bit of inter-species, mixed faction romantic mingling, housed in a travelogue-formatted space odyssey? That’s at least some of what Barbadian writer Karen Lord is getting up to, in her second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds.

What’s remarkable about Lord’s oeuvre is that it’s near-unmatched: very few Caribbean writers, resident in the Caribbean, commit themselves to speculative fiction. Lord tells stories that are not only fascinating emotionally and anthropologically, but she’s doing it in a singular literary field.

Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo (Small Beer Press, 2010) was longlisted for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. In its unpublished manuscript format, the novel won the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award. The Best of All Possible Worlds also received the Frank Collymore award, in 2009.

As with so much speculative fiction, the ambitions of Lord’s second novel are vast – and for the most part, they find confident footing. The story is narrated principally by Grace Delarua, a plucky biotechnician and resident of polycultural planet Cygnus Beta. Delarua is assigned to a social research expedition in service of the Sadiri, a proud, intellectually advanced race whose home territory has been obliterated. Represented by their chief councillor, Dllenahkh, the Sadiri seek out potential mates most similar to their own core temperament and physical appearance, on the many separate homesteads scattered throughout Cygnus Beta’s outposts and provinces.

Perhaps Redemption in Indigo bore more easily recognizable hallmarks of folkloric treatment (unsurprisingly, given that it’s a creative retelling of a Senegalese folk tale.) However, the avoidance of monoculturalism is gratifyingly strong in Lord’s second work. Cygnus Beta is described as “a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees,” and is populated with a diverse set of races, each with their own identifiable quirks and passions. Dllenahkh’s Sadirian measured equanimity finds a consistently pleasurable foil in Delarua’s Cygnian matter of factness and emotional volubility. The two give every indication, in the novel’s earliest stages, of being well-suited to the kind of romance that not only links two people, but solidifies tenuous bridges of cultural commingling.

This seems to be one of the central premises Lord works out in the novel. The universe’s various citizenries enact premeditated (and often brutal) acts of separatist violence against each other: witness Ain’s cavalier destruction of Sadiri, and the massive devastation this genocide left in its wake. Despite unfathomable loss and crippling exile, Lord prompts her central characters deeper into an understanding, and appreciation of, mutual dependency. Almost all of the novel’s players express strong attachments to concepts of home, kinship and domestic succor. Delarua says it herself, during an unexpected trip to her sister’s homestead:

“Blood is blood, you know? There’s too much shared history and too many cross-connecting bonds to ever totally extract yourself from that half-smothering, half-supporting, muddled net called family.”

It is perhaps slightly ironic, then, that Lord suggests that the connections we make, rather than those into which we are born, hold greatest sway. This isn’t a novel concept, but it’s engagingly transmitted through the writer’s exploration of psychic bonds, particularly the psionic linkages that Delarua and Dllenahkh test with each other. It’s not an especially groundbreaking way to talk about sensual or sexual intimacy in science fiction, but Lord recycles it well. Through these episodes, it feels like we see the potential couple most clearly, wherein they allow themselves to interface with vulnerability and trust. As Dllenahkh puts it, there can be a certain

“transcendence to bonding… feeling the bones, tendons and nerves of another being – not as a puppet master but like a dancer fitted to a partner, able to suggest a movement with a light press of silent, invisible communication.”

The novel’s greatest flaw is also one of its most affecting charms: it is both episodic in nature (as opposed to tackling one core issue head on in the plot), and it wants to say a great many things about a great many things. If the best of all possible worlds, according to the aphorism, is the one we’re living in now, then reading Lord grants us pathways to other places no greater than this Earth, but no less captivating.

This review first appeared in its entirety in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on April 6th, 2014, entitled “Confident new Caribbean sci-fi novel.”

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.