Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

There are a lot of reasons to like Redemption in Indigo, and “it has personality”  is probably the most non-specific imaginable. Yet this was my favourite thing about it; it’s charming, it’s clever, but more than anything it is very much itself.


From last week’s Left of Cool column.


Months ago I used this space to talk about Joan Aiken’s collection of short stories, The Monkey’s Wedding. “The Monkey’s Wedding” is, apparently, one of many phrases used to describe the weather when it is raining but the sun is shining at the same time. Another, according to author Karen Lord, is “… the devil and his wife are fighting for the cou-cou stick”. It’s this image, of an immortal being and an ordinary woman struggling over a cooking implement, that is at the heart of Lord’s novel Redemption in Indigo.

Based on a Senegalese folk tale Redemption in Indigo tells the story of Paama, a brilliant cook with a glutton for a husband. Ansige’s uncontrollable appetite gets him into a number of awkward situations, from which his wife extricates him with great ingenuity. It’s Paama’s conduct towards her embarrassing husband that convinces two immortal beings, or Djombis, that she is a fit person, of all humans, to hold the chaos stick. The stick (to all appearances an ordinary cooking implement) allows its wielder to summon any one of thousands of possible futures at any time. Naturally the original bearer of this power, a mysterious indigo-skinned djombi is less than pleased. He must now convince Paama to give the stick back to him.

Redemption in Indigo situates itself firmly in an oral tradition of storytelling with its opening lines: “A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily”. This narrator will continue to comment on the story throughout the book; reminding the reader, for example, that she will have to suspend belief if she wants things to make sense. “For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase ‘I am a pawnbroker’ in any known human language?” Late in the book Lord introduces a storyteller as a minor character. There’s no indication that this man is the teller of this story – in avoiding that rather obvious little narrative trick Lord makes more real a world in which tellers of tales are a part of the landscape. Stories that are constantly commenting upon themselves often risk sounding coy, but here the form seems perfectly integrated with the setting.

And yet this nameless narrator’s rival is quite right. There’s something untidy about this book and its refusal to wrap itself up neatly in any reasonably widely-accepted genre or style. A good portion of the book is just a story of village life, told with a sly sense of humour. Ansige’s wildly exaggerated appetite belongs to a comic tradition that is quite separate from the dreamlike one in which Paama and the djombi move through time and space. There’s an element of science fictionality brought in by the conceit of the chaos stick, loosely rooted as it is in quantum theory. There are entire stories left untold about the complicated relationships between the djombi , but the book tells us to look away and concentrate on the humans.

Then there’s Paama herself. In another novel she’d be the dull example- the good wife who cooks, is quiet and does her duty. Yet there’s something compelling about her and her active commitment to doing what she thinks right. I doubt Lord was thinking of Jane Eyre when she wrote Paama, but for me the two have much in common as great moral heroines.

I use the word ‘moral’ here because towards the end the book pre-emptively dismisses “those who utterly, utterly fear the dreaded Moral of the Story”. In the event, Redemption in Indigo isn’t quite the didactic book that it signals it might be. But if it begins awkwardly and ends untidily, if it throws its support firmly behind its main character, it proudly embraces all these aspects of the story that it is. This is a book that could not exist any other way.



One Comment to “Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

  1. In Assamese, that kind of weather is called “khora xiyalor biya”. A tailless fox’s wedding.

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