Paama can cook. I mean, she can cook.
She’s also married to Ansige, a man so gluttonous that he takes eight mules laden with food and two hunters (just in case) on a three-day journey, a man who can eat corn for 20 men and still feel dissatisfied. Ansige is, obviously, a clown–so Paama leaves him. Ansige searches for her and finds her…but embarrasses himself so thoroughly in the process that he leaves her alone afterwards. Now effectively a single woman, Paama attracts the attention of some undying spirits that hang around and interfere with people’s lives, djombi. She’s a unique woman, tough and compassionate and clever. The djombi decide to entrust her with the Chaos Stick.
But we’re just getting started. The Stick isn’t really hers, and she doesn’t really know what to do with it. It “belongs” to the indigo lord, a reclusive, haughty djombi who has no time for humans and their foibles. The indigo lord is angry. He decides to get the Stick back. Hijinks that involve a Trickster spider, warping time and space, and a handful of characters with their own agendas, ensue.
The thing that really made this book for me is Lord’s expert telling. She has such a perfect tone, such a wonderful blend of realism and magic. For instance, one of my favorite moments (spoiler alert!) is when the indigo lord threatens to harm Paama’s family if she refuses to give him the chaos stick. So she does exactly what you would do in that situation: she hands it over. And immediately, the narrator says something to the effect of, well, wouldn’t you? Paama’s smart, and she doesn’t particularly care about the Stick. She knows she’s no match for the djombi. In many other books, Paama would have refused, been saved by a deus ex machina, or come up with a last ditch heroic plan that, against all odds, succeeded. But this is not those books.
Paama is no Hermione, in other words. She’s a sort-of-divorced woman, not an ingenue wizard. She doesn’t have a magic wand, she’s just a really good cook with an embarrassing husband who wants answers to her questions and wants to make the right choices with the information she has. And this is a story about choices, and how fate can only go so far before it runs into you and your choice, and you get to decide what to do with it. And Lord’s narrative structure reinforces that theme superbly. (Really, you should just read it.)
This book gave me that feeling I used to get as a kid listening to a new fairy tale…nothing was quite expected, but it was close enough to be possible, or even plausible…right? The feeling of wishing this could happen in real life, of being immersed in the elaborate, colorful scenes the author conjures up. The narrator breaks the fourth wall in exactly the right way, and you can imagine her (of course it’s a her!) turning to you and raising an eyebrow during an aside. (“I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region…”) The cadence is precise, as if Lord simply transcribed what the village storyteller told her one evening.
My only complaint is the ending, which felt a little rushed and banal compared to the rest of the book. I wanted more of an unconventional ending in keeping with the rest of the unconventional book…but I still enjoyed it!
I picked this up after hearing that it was based on a Senegalese folk tale, but I didn’t realize until I finished it that Karen Lord is a writer from Barbados. So I’m going to count it as .5 of a book towards my African literature book gal–from Senegal, vaguely set in Africa, but not, strictly, African literature.
So if you’re looking for a charming, clever, humorous, melancholy fable with well-developed, non-Western, pragmatic women characters and an endearing narrator, set somewhere in Africa, complete with a Trickster spider who hangs out in bars, you should pick this one up right now.