Nalo Hopkinson is not Margaret Atwood.
This may seem like a strange and perhaps obvious epiphany to have. Indeed, some of you might be advanced enough not to need to read an entire book before arriving at it. Some of you might be even further advanced (say, doctorate in philosophy) and question the veracity of this proposition. So allow me to explain what I mean, and you philosophers can decide for yourself.
I should explain that there are things about Nalo Hopkinson, or specifically about The New Moon’s Arms, that remind me of Atwood and her writing. Mainly, Calamity Lambkin is a woman coming to terms with the fact that she has accumulated a lot of past. She has reached a point in life where people have begun to treat her differently—she’s the matriarch instead of the woman, the mother instead of the lover. Calamity has reached the point where one becomes incredibly, sometimes dishearteningly, aware of the aging process. And as this slow internal crisis comes over her, she finds herself in the middle of an external one, personified in the form of a boy who washes ashore one night, parents nowhere to be seen. Throw in a strained relationship with a daughter Calamity had in her teens and an estranged onetime gay boyfriend who fathered the girl, and you have a recipe for a very interesting, character-driven novel.
Calamity reminds me a little of Elaine from Cat’s Eye. Both women spend a lot of time reflecting on significant events that have shaped the course of their lives. Both set themselves somewhat at odds with other members of their community—Elaine with her fellow artists, Calamity with family and friends. Like Elaine, Calamity’s voice is peppered with wry observations about societal expectations that result from her age, gender, and employment. Both characters have romantic and sexual relations, but these are not the central purpose of the plot.
So in many ways, Hopkinson’s writing and voice remind me of Atwood’s—but their styles are very different, as are the perspectives from which they arrive at these observations. Set in the Caribbean Islands, The New Moon’s Arms infuses Calamity’s quest for self-discovery with a post-colonial tinge. Calamity’s fictional nation is beholden to international agreements that, in turn, encourage it to make deals with unsavoury corporations. Some of the people in the story are involved in these matters at quite a high level, though the matters themselves are always tangential to the actual plot. Thus, as background scenery, these matters telegraph a sense of wanting to move on—and catch up with—the wider world. They broadcast an appetite for progress that is troubling to some.
In contrast, Calamity exhibits a pragmatic spirituality about the world around her. She has the ability to find lost objects—where in this case, find means that objects, including entire cashew orchards, will manifest spontaneously without her conscious effort. This somewhat random ability disappeared when she was younger, but it returns to Calamity while she is at her father’s funeral. Along with the cryptozoological nature of the boy she finds and Calamity’s own memory of encountering a quixotic girl in the ocean, this ability contributes to the label of “magical realism” that The New Moon’s Arms has earned.
There isn’t a lot of magic in this book though. Calamity’s ability is ancillary; I think it’s there more to demarcate her allegiance to the older, more superstitious world versus the modern world. (Her ancient car is another such symbol.) Although some aspects of the modern world are definitely negative—the various political shenanigans come to mind—the old world is not all puppy dogs and rainbows. Calamity also has some fairly outdated—i.e., bigoted—views on homosexuality and bisexuality as well.
The father of Calamity’s daughter, Michael, is gay. He suspected this in high school; Calamity, desperate because she had a crush on Michael, talked him into “testing it out” by having sex with her. Well it turns out that turning gay people straight is not among Calamity’s miracle powers, and Michael eventually settles down with another man, Orso. Calamity’s mistrust of Michael’s “lifestyle” causes her to keep him out of raising their daughter. It’s unclear how much of her bigotry is actually a misdirected, generalized sense of enmity towards Michael because of his role in her unexpected pregnancy. Would she still be homophobic if she had never had sex with Michael, if she had never gotten pregnant? I don’t know.
I like that Hopkinson leaves this open to interpretation, much as I like that she makes Calamity a very fallible and flawed person. Calamity is no saint, a textbook case of the unsympathetic protagonist. I like that she has flaws even if I don’t particularly like her.
Why only three stars? I wish the story had been developed somewhat more deeply. For example, there are some infrequent scenes in which a man who works at the Zooquarium is counting the number of monk seals in the habitat. Their varying number mirrors the observations of Hector Goonan, a marine biologist trying to take a seal census around the island. There’s a narrative purpose for these scenes, one related to the mystery of the child whom Calamity saves. Hopkinson draws on some very old and sometimes obscure mythology, and I feel that she could have made richer connections. Perhaps she didn’t want to become burdened by that same mythology—she picked exactly and only what she needed to tell the story. But I think it’s still missing something to make it truly compelling.
The New Moon’s Arms is a book that rests almost entirely on the strength of its narrator and main character, Calamity Lambkin. You might not like her—though it would be more accurate to say you’ll love her sense of humour and her independence but hate her when she is judgemental and closed-minded. She is, in that sense, a very real and three-dimensional character. The story doesn’t quite do her justice, for it doesn’t stretch enough to accommodate everything that Hopkinson has packed into her. But it’s sufficient. Like Margaret Atwood, Hopkinson succeeds in giving voice to a unique and sensible older woman whose self-determination is a central part of the story. In addition, she weaves elements of fantasy, mythology, and history into the book, creating an intriguing if not totally enjoyable work.