Winner of the 1998 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest
Winner of the 1999 Locus Award for Best First Novel
Shortlisted for the 1998 Philip K. Dick Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2008
Nalo Hopkinson is one of Canada’s most prominent science-fiction writers. She has been shortlisted for and won several prestigious international sci-fi awards. Brown Girl in the Ring is Hopkinson’s first novel, which was released through a contest where the winner received a publication agreement. The story revolves around a Toronto of the not-to-distant future that has been abandoned by government and police and overrun by gangs and drug addicts hooked on a substance called buff. This novel is a cross between a typical sci-fi and fantasy story; there are many scenes that lean heavily on Caribbean religious beliefs and spirits.
The book starts out very fast and is very intriguing. In the opening chapters the way the history of how Toronto fell into utter decay is very well done; it is given through newspaper headlines that another derelict is using for an artistic piece. Unfortunately the book slows to an almost unbearable pace after the opening 30 pages. The ensuing 120 pages or so are very richly described and detailed but the forward momentum of the novel simply grinds to a halt; once you get past this point the novel progresses at a speed which almost overwhelms the reader. The central characters, Ti-Jeanne, Mami, Rudy, Tony, and Mi-Jeanne, all weave a complex family and community steeped in the culture of their Caribbean roots. The pacing aside, Brown Girl in the Ring is an interesting book. It plays around quite a bit stereotypes, i.e. the good-for-nothing-boyfriend that the girl still loves, the wise old grandmother, and the evil crime boss out only for himself; but the characters themselves are not the memorable part of book. For me, what I will remember, is the idea of Toronto collapsed in on itself and the vivid descriptions of the city. Hopkinson uses real street names and places in the book very effectively, including the CN Tower for the final showdown.
All-in-all this was a decent read. I do not read a lot of sci-fi but it is a genre I enjoy. I have always had a lot of admiration for the writers of this type of work; it is one thing to create a story out of nothing that is of this world, but to create this universe without boundaries whether it is told through a scientific or spiritual lens is amazing to me. The imagination this would require is far beyond what I think I could muster for my own writings. One thing that should be mentioned as well in speaking about this book is the power of the CBC Canada Reads competition. Brown Girl in the Ring was a selection for the 2008 show and introduced Hopkinson, who herself was an advocate for Whylah Falls on the 2002 show, to a whole new set of readers, including myself. This being her first novel I am positive that her other works will continue to improve and I look forward to picking up one of her many other pieces.