SEPTEMBER 23, 2011
KAREN LORD’S FIRST NOVEL, Redemption in Indigo, is a folk tale that leads in delightfully unpredictable directions. Delicately balancing the influences of Senegalese, Caribbean, and European folk traditions, Lord forgoes fairy-tale cliché, instead offering tales of substantial power told by an omniscient narrator who teases us with a self-aware and dry humor.
Redemption in Indigo revolves around the heroine Paama, whom Lord discovered in an anthology of fairy tales as a child. Lord imagines this heroine’s life beyond the traditional ending. When the story opens, Paama has just returned to her parent’s village, fleeing the home of her gluttonous husband Ansige, who cares about nothing but his next meal. Paama is renowned for her incredible skills as a cook and, missing her mouth-watering concoctions, Ansige manages to hoist himself up and follow her. Our first quite vivid parable — three chapters based loosely on a Senegalese folk tale transcribed by Leo Frobenius — concerns what happens to Ansige once he enters Paama’s native village. Through it all, despite the gruesome consequences of her husband’s greed, Paama remains humble and principled, and we worry whether she will ever manage to leave Ansige for good.
Paama, though, has another set of problems. She has been chosen by immortal spirits called djombi to wield the powers of Chaos, which are embodied in an ebony and gold stirring stick. These powers are particularly strong, giving the holder the ability to make any wish a reality. Two senior djombis have recently snatched the stick from another djombi who had misused its power, becoming lawless and scornful of humans. When he discovers that the djombis have not only stolen his powers but given them to a lowly human, he turns himself into a tall man with striking indigo skin and angrily sets off to retrieve his stick. The narrative ranges across several parallel universes, and forward and back in time, as the indigo djombi struggles to regain his powers.
In the course of the novel we meet a menagerie of characters, including an amusing assortment of talking bees, beetles, and stick insects. We also meet the three elements: a tentacled being at the bottom of the sea, a bewinged creature of the wind, and a disdainful elephant who is the “Queen of Ever-changing Lands, as well as an immortal Anansi-like trickster who takes the form of a black spider weaving in and out of the tale, showing up when least expected (as a true trickster does).
In traditional fables, fate and fortune usually determine the course of events. But Lord is more existentialist than fatalist, and her characters’ lives are determined by the choices they make. Each central character has his or her own narrative arc, and in each parable, choice is as important as chance or serendipity. Paama’s husband, a complicated mixture of greed and parsimony, must suffer the consequences of his gluttony. Paama’s vain and beautiful sister also faces a difficult choice, forced to decide between a handsome but poor poet and his mysterious and wealthy master. Even the spider has decisions to make that, in the end, shape his destiny. For Lord, the ability to make good choices with “creativity … discernment … and detachment” is what allows us all to handle the Chaos stick of life.
Lord’s strengths as a writer are her witty, often satirical understatement and her ability to juxtapose folk- and fairy-tale devices with modern idioms and cultural references. Lord maintains the universality of the folk tale by never mentioning exactly when or where her story takes place, a non-realist ambiguity that I find refreshing. While conceptually sophisticated, Redemption in Indigo can feel a bit sparse, like a book aimed at young adults; indeed, I wished it had been significantly longer, so that the characters could be developed further. Still, there is something important about the simply told tale. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator bemoans that such tales are now only told to children, perhaps to remind us that the fable and the fabulous remain relevant and ageless.