Redemption in Indigo
by Karen Lord
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is a book I fear I may not be able to do justice with a review. It would be so simple to just quote another: from Booklist - "One of those literary works of which it can be said that not a word should be changed." But that would be cheating, so I will have to make the attempt. Basically, just know it's highly recommended, full of thoughtful introspection, searing emotions, but still with a playful spirit.
Redemption in Indigo is the debut novel by Karen Lord. It is at least partially based on a Senagalese folktale, "Ansige Karamba the Glutton," but there may be other stories referenced, including some from Barbados, the author's birthplace. Familiar elements are trickster spirits, one of whom may be a version of Anansi, as well as several djombi, indentified as the "undying ones." They seem to be connected to the basic forces of nature. Even though they can take human or animal form, in their basic existence one is known as Chance, another Patience. They all are drawn to Paama, based on how she has reacted to her husband Ansige, whose gluttony has nearly driven her crazy. She is an accomplished cook, but she never seems to be able to satiate his appetite. She has left him and returned to her parents, who have moved from the town Ansige was familiar with, so he has to hire a tracker to find her. When he learns where she is he travels to her new home hoping to win her back.
The first few chapters are full of humor as Ansige gets himself into one preposterous situation after another, everything stemming from his relentless desire for more food. Paama is patient when she has every reason to be furious with him. She helps him avoid ridicule from the other villagers by blaming herself for his predicaments, but her parents can see through that, and scheme to help her get him out of her life. Shortly after Ansige is sent to a hospital in a nearby town, the djombi Patience (in the guise of a delivery man) appears to Paama with a gift, a stirring stick made from polished ebony wood with gold inlay. After Patience returns that body to its rightful owner, she realizes she has neglected to tell Paama the unique properties of the stick, so another body is inhabited, this time a six year old girl. Paama can't understand anything the girl says about it, but she still holds on to the stick because she senses something special about it. No wonder, since it is the Chaos Stick, which Patience has taken from Chance to punish him for past indiscretions. Chance initially mistakes Paama's sister Neila as the one most likely to have the Chaos Stick, and during his confusion Paama leaves town to seek guidance at the House of the Sisters.
While the story never loses its light touch, it does go to darker places as well. When Chance realizes his mistake and discovers that it is Paama who possesses the stick, he encompasses her in a bubble of space/time, and removes her from the village, and from the memories of those left behind. Well, not their complete memory, just the notion that Paama had been there, they all think she is still with the Sisters. Chance transports them to different places, different times, maybe sometimes the past, possibly the future. He wants to show her the types of things he normally controls with the Chaos Stick. For some reason he cannot take it from her unless she agrees he is worthy. Their relationship is puzzling, since Chance continually tells her he has nothing but contempt for humanity, and yet he gradually develops a respect for her based on how she reacts to various situations. She also begins to understand and have sympathy for his predicament.
There are side stories as well. Neila's betrothal to the poet Alton, who at one point had been possessed by Chance during his search for the Chaos Stick; the Sisters' attempt to help Paama while at the same time withholding some of their suspicions from her; and the Sisters hiring of the same tracker earlier employed by Ansige when they realize Paama has disappeared. Paama is buffeted by a storm of emotions, from fear and anxiety, to hate and resentment, to understanding and acceptance of the necessity for the force of chaos in life. Also, as much as she'd hate to admit it, a continuing concern (if not love) for her husband Ansige, whose hunger had really just been one for acceptance, something he had never received from his father.
It's part fairy tale, part philosophical debate, full of whimsy but also seriousness. I know I'll be re-reading this, particularly to see if I missed anything in the final chapters. The epilogue introduces a notion I had not expected, that maybe Chance had left with Paama not just ideas, but something physical as well, if that is possible from an elemental spirit to a human. Would Paama's life been much different if Chance had not intervened? Maybe, maybe not, but for sure it would have been less interesting, and she is sure not to worry if she encounters a little chaos now and then.
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