This is my third Nalo Hopkinson novel, and while I think Brown Girl in the Ring and Sister Mine are better works, I nevertheless liked this one quite a lot. Hopkinson has a unique talent for blending fantasy, science fiction, and Afro-Caribbean culture/history into stories of female empowerment. Midnight Robber’s main character is a girl who suffers trauma at the hands of someone she ought to have been able to trust and who then must find the path to her own healing.
Midnight Robber is the story of Tan-Tan, exiled with her father into another dimension and a completely different world from her native Toussaint. On Toussaint, Tan Tan was a little girl from a privileged family. Her father Antonio was mayor and wielded power and influence. Her mother Ione was a great beauty, and the love of these two people was tempestuous. Toussaint is a world with highly advanced technology but very little privacy, and keeping secrets is tricky. When Antonio discover’s Ione’s secret, his anger and passion get the better of him, and he takes Tan-Tan with him into exile. Tan-Tan is just a little girl and doesn’t understand what is happening to her until it is too late.
The exile colony, New Half-Way Tree, is free from technology and full of exiles, some of whom are violent criminals. It has an “old west” vibe, where in your village, the town marshall could exercise almost unlimited authority for good or bad. Antonio and Tan-Tan end up in a rough village called Junjuh where they meet someone from their past and where Antonio’s worst inclinations are given free reign. As Tan-Tan becomes a beautiful young woman, this will have horrifying consequences for her.
New Half-Way Tree is not just populated by human exiles from Toussaint. The douen are natives to the planet but are treated as subhuman servants by exiles. They are quite unusual compared to the brown skinned people arriving from “civilization”. They appear reptilian or bird-like and eat grubs, plants and small lizards; they do not possess advanced technology but they do have creative talents and other astounding abilities; and they put on a self-deprecating and submissive act in front of humans that they lose when they are among their own. Chichibud is the douen who first discovers Antonio and Tan-Tan when they arrive on the planet, and it is clear immediately that while Antonio is disgusted and mistrustful of Chichibud and the douen, Tan-Tan is able to get past human prejudices and see how intelligent and kind they are. Chichibud and Tan-Tan will develop a strong bond that will serve her well when her life falls apart as a teenager.
The “midnight robber” is a character from Tan-Tan’s childhood who featured prominently in carnival celebrations on Toussaint. The midnight robber was usually a man but could be a woman, and at carnival, people dressed as robbers would “hold up” other revelers and demand money in return for telling their story. Tan-Tan loved dressing up as the robber, and when as a teen she has to deal with the horrific consequences of her father’s actions, Tan-Tan becomes a real-life “midnight robber,” often administering vigilante justice on behalf of weaker members of the community. Teenaged Tan-Tan is dealing with trauma and stress as well as enormous guilt, and it gets to the point where she is almost divided into two; inside her she sees a “good Tan-Tan” and a “bad Tan-Tan.” While the first half of the novel sets up Tan-Tan’s tumultuous life and the dramatic upheavals that uproot her twice, the second half is about Tan-Tan coming to terms with herself and what she has had to do in order to survive.
This novel has a lot of interesting things to say about technology, privacy, “civilization” and the treatment of native peoples by colonizers, but it is first and foremost about the trauma that men inflict upon girls and what this does to a person both physically and psychologically. That is an important and powerful message and is handled quite well in the story, even if I felt that some of the historical and cultural aspects of the story could have been fleshed out more. Mainly I’m thinking that I would have liked a bit more “world-building” for Toussaint and New Half-Way Tree, with some explanation of their history and cultural influences. Overall though this was an absorbing novel with a main character whose story, I think, will resonate with those who have suffered trauma at a young age from someone close to them.