Monday, December 15, 2014

Only thing soft about Tan-Tan is she big molasses-brown eyes...

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Midnight Robber is the first novel by Nalo Hopkinson I've ever read, but it won't be the last.  I have had the book for a few years now but have always shied away from reading it.  It's science fiction, a genre I don't read very often (but am getting more into!), it's written in dialect (patois), and, more to the point, the main character is a victim of incestuous rape.

But I finally opened up the book and read the first few pages.  I was so drawn into the story that ally my qualms just disappeared.  Midnight Rider is the story of Tan-Tan.  After Tan-Tan's father commits an unforgivable sin during Carnival, he escapes (with 6-year-old Tan-Tan) to New Half-Way Tree.  Tan-Tan must learn to adapt to survive, and so she takes on the persona of the Midnight Robber, a Robin Hood-esque, smooth-talking, vengeance-seeking rhyme master who helps people in need and punishes people who cheat.

At first, I really struggled with the dialect in this book, especially because I would read a few pages here and there during Thanksgiving week, quite distractedly.  I never got into a rhythm.  Finally, over this past week, I was able to read at least 50 pages at a time, and that really helped me.  While I still stumbled sometimes and had to reread sentences, it was much easier, and I became much more immersed in the world Hopkinson created through the language she used.

Hopkinson's universe is based on an Caribbean culture, dominated by the African folktales and sprinkled with Indian influences.  Just as I loved Aliette de Bodard's Eastern influence in her science fiction, I really, really appreciated this in Hopkinson's.  Here's a universe where Carnival is the biggest holiday of the year, everyone has a helpful eshu (the trickster teacher of African tales) in her ear, and children go to bed hearing stories of Anansi and the Midnight Robber.  I especially appreciated the way Hopkinson weaved her main story with folktales about Tan-Tan as the Midnight Robber. I love folktales and just ate those sections up.

I also liked the way Hopkinson progressed her story.  I don't want to give too much away, but as I said at the start, Tan-Tan goes through some truly horrible stuff in her early life.  Hopkinson shows how this abuse affects Tan-Tan's ability to trust other people, to form friendships, and to meet new people.  For example, Tan-Tan flirts with every man she comes across because she cherishes the feeling of her being in the position of power, when she's been powerless for so long.  And Hopkinson also evolves that feeling into the Midnight Robber, Tan-Tan's alter ego who is confident and witty and strong and doesn't pull any punches.

There's also a lot of symbolism in this story.  There's another intelligent species on New Half-Way Tree, and the way people treat that species is much as you would expect.  There's Tan-Tan's desperate need to escape from a past that keeps coming to find her.  The gender bender of Tan-Tan becoming the Midnight Robber while a man waits patiently at home for her to return.  The lawlessness of convict towns slowly becoming more civilized and the impact something like that has on the environment and ecosystem around those towns.

I admit that the characters in this story didn't draw me in nearly as much.  Tan-Tan is the central character, and while I liked her, she kept me at a distance.  Other characters come in and out of the story without any real personality or development, even when they are quite integral to Tan-Tan's life - her mother, the town doctor, her best friend Abitefa.  I wish we had seen more of these characters and how they saw and interacted with Tan-Tan.  But maybe Hopkinson didn't want to take away from her main character and put all the focus there.  I do hope that in other books, there is more a cast of characters than just the one.

That said, the positives outweighed the negatives here.  There's so much, more than enough to sink your teeth into and ponder over several nights.  I'm absolutely going to read many more books by Nalo Hopkinson, and I recommend you to do the same.  Especially because


  1. I hadn't heard of this author either. Thanks for the intro.

  2. I've seen this book around, but never knew what it was about. I think I'll add it to my tbr list.

  3. I have tried her two most recent books - Chaos and Sister Mine - and didn't get on with them at all, didn't finish either of them. I will try her one more time, most likely a book from earlier in her career, like this one or Skin Folk.

  4. I recently finished my first novel by Hopkinson. It's the first time I've read speculative fiction. That book grabbed me right away as well. I had some issues with it though. The positives and negatives in that one kind of balance each other out. I definitely plan to read more from the genre and I'll give Hopkinson one more go. But I plan to read Brown Girl in the Ring. I'll post a review on the Salt Roads tomorrow...


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