10 September 2007

The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson

a review by Craig Laurance Gidney


Like a patchwork quilt, Nalo Hopkinson’s new novel The New Moon's Arms positively seethes with patterns and threads that clash, but come together regardless. It’s a madcap comic novel about aging, the wounds of slavery, and the transformative power of love set on an imaginary archipelago in the Caribbean.

The action centers around Calamity Lambkin, a curmudgeonly 50-something woman on the verge of menopause. Her first person narration is raunchy and rollicking without resorting to the cheap sassiness that Hollywood assigns black women. You won’t find Calamity in a Tyler Perry movie anytime soon. Born Chastity, she has renamed herself Calamity after a life of hardship, involving a teenaged pregnancy, single motherhood and the disappearance of her own mother. During her father’s funeral, she starts experiencing intense hot flashes that coincide with her finding objects that have been lost long ago—mostly from her childhood. A monogrammed pin, a toy truck, and in one instance, her father’s entire cashew grove appears out of thin air. During a particularly violent storm, Calamity finds the strangest thing of all: a lost child who has washed up on shore, who babbles an incomprehensible language. She decides to act as a foster parent to the lost boy, which causes further complications in her life.

Calamity is a profoundly flawed character, but one whose heart is in the right place. She is deeply suspicious, has a mean streak as wide as the Sargasso, and makes alienating mistakes at the drop of a hat. The little lost boy brings out her vulnerability, even as she drives potential friends, lovers and her own child away. Her hard-headedness, though, is what drives her quest to find the lost boy’s parents.

Folklore is woven into the structure of the novel that informs the narrative. An ancestor of Calamity’s, referred to the Dada Hair Woman, has several interludes set during the harrowing Middle Passage. Like Calamity, she is a ‘finder’ whose power is triggered by her menstrual cycles. This section is told in a mythic tone different from the rest of the novel, and readers will find echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved; like Morrison, Hopkinson is able to make scenes of unflinching brutality ultimately cathartic. Another folkloric strain concerns ‘the devil girl of the sea, that mirrors the action of the main story:
‘Keep your part of the bargain now,’ said the devil girl. ‘Pull me out of this hole.’

So Granny did that. The devil girl was slippery. Her skin was a deep blue, like the water in Blue Pit, the bottomless lagoon. And she was heavy for so! Granny managed, though. But before Granny could stop her, the devil girl shimmied up onto Granny’s shoulders, wrapped her legs around Granny’s neck, and tangled her long blue nails in Granny’s hair. ‘Carry me to where you living, Granny; beg you do,’ said the devil girl.

And she squeezed her legs tighter around Granny’s neck.
Hopkinson’s archipelago of Cayaba is rich with history and contemporary touches. It’s a culturally diverse setting where a salt-mining plant competes with family salt farms; where old beliefs compete with new ones (Calamity’s daughter is a new age hippy, much to her mother’s chagrin). ‘Jumbies’ and internet connectivity exist side by side. The struggles of the indigenous postcolonial population against corporate-driven political maneuvering is another theme explored here.

Hopkinson threatens to move into didactic territory when she adds a queer subplot. While admirable, it distracts from the main narrative thrust. Calamity’s got pregnant with her daughter by her gay best friend, and one of her current love interests is bisexual. Calamity reacts with anger at these perceived betrayals and gets soundly slapped down by people with more enlightened attitudes. These scenes come across stiffly and have an educational feel.

The New Moon’s Arms is mostly a fun novel. There were moments when I was reading it on DC’s Metro that I laughed aloud, and elicited strange looks from fellow passengers. It’s not every day you can call a postcolonial novel a ‘feel-good’ book.

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