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Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord


Paama, who is a great cook, has returned to her family after 10 years of marriage to the gluttonous Ansige, but two years later he hires the master tracker Kwame to find her. Kwame needs the money to finance his own wanderlust and reluctantly takes the job. These events draw the attention of Chance, the Indigo Lord, one of the powerful spirits called Djombi. The Indigo Lord once wielded the power of Chaos, imbued within the Chaos Stick, but to punish him it was taken from him and given to Paama. Now he wants it back, and he has all sorts of elaborate schemes planned to induce Paama to give him back the Chaos Stick.

The narrator, sometimes serious and often mischievous, spins delicate but powerful descriptions of locations, emotions, and the protagonists’ great flaws and great strengths as they interact with family, poets, tricksters, sufferers of tragedy, and – of course – occasional moments of pure chaos.
Lord’s debut novel is that strange beast, straddling different lines; Redemption in Indigo has aspects of urban fantasy (modern setting, for instance), of myth, of magical realism (including the limitation of subtlety on the supernatural actors in the novel). So let’s just call it fantasy and be done with trying to categorise the novel, as I’m sure the narrator would recommend…

That active narratorial voice, so familiar to readers of Valente’s Fairyland books, is one of the biggest pleasures of the book. Redemption in Indigo recalls oral storytelling culture implicitly throughout and explicitly at the close, the narrator in active conversation with the audience; there are asides in response to implied audience questions and reactions, comments on the narrative unlike what we see in most nominally-narratorless third person viewpoint works, lengthy asides to the reader than can be totally tangential to the plot but integral to the story. It is perhaps most reminiscent, at least for me, of Homer in that regard, right down to the wonderful ring structure of the plot; Redemption in Indigo doesn’t just imitate orality, it captures its essence and spirit – and then translates that to the page beautifully.

Of course, a book, even a book whose narrator plays such a large role, is more than simply a style. It’s also character and plot; and Redemption in Indigo certainly has those. In this tale of djombi (gods? forces of nature? demons? something of all of those?) and humans, each character is loved and humoured and mocked and pitied by turn; Lord plays favourites, of course – Paama, our protagonist, being one, and the Trickster being another; but at the same time, there is no real antagonist or villain of the piece, especially since Ansige is shown from his own point of view, shown as a pitiable character who cannot control himself. Redemption in Indigo, in this interest in and sympathy for all its characters, breaks from the Western conflict-driven narrative traditions to be a more interesting story, driven instead by reconciliation and – dare I say it – redemption; that gentility, even in its crueller humour, is a really interesting thread to trace throughout the narrative and to see how it touches and affects the portrayal of characters who could have been rendered villainous, cretinous, or simply vile by a less sympathetic author.

The plot is a little episodic, but this feels appropriate to the style; although Redemption in Indigo does follow a single line, it does so by highlighting some episodes, jumping from character to character and event to event, tying itself in knots only to untie them. The story is a relatively simple, straightforward one, but the pleasure is in the telling, which complicates it in the best way; achronology, asides, jumping back to explain things better, moving from character to character and back again, all these create a sort of anarchic sense of happening that feels rather beautiful and works well. That the narrator understands, themself, that this is going on is one of the pleasures, as Lord manipulates the story and comments on it, highlighting and discussing that manipulation wonderfully.

In the end, Karen Lord has given us a novel to cherish, and a story to laugh at. Redemption in Indigo hints at a sequel, but in the way all oral storytelling does – and, hopefully, with as little reality to it; a direct sequel would only diminish the power of both the open ending – and of the novel itself.

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