Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Redemption in Indigo (2010) by Karen Lord is a beautiful, sly, innovative book that is doing much more than it seems to be on the surface. The frame story is the folktale of Ansige the glutton. Lord’s retelling takes Paama, a skilled cook and Ansige’s estranged wife, as its protagonist. At the beginning of the book, she has left Ansige and returned to her own family to decide what she’ll do next. But after missing his wife’s constant attention to his endless appetite, Ansige comes looking for her. In typical folktale logic, he is humiliated three times, tricked by djombi (who are spirits or deities), before leaving Paama in peace.
But where the folktale ends, Lord’s novel really begins. Because after Ansige leaves, Paama is left with the Chaos Stick, a magical artifact that can manipulate events. She first discovers what it can do when she saves a young girl from drowning through the most unlikely circumstances, and begins to dream of changing the world through its power: reversing horrific catastrophes and cruel massacres. But another djombi, the indigo lord, claims ownership of the Chaos Stick. He finds Paama and attempts to trick, cajole, and threaten her into giving up the stick before taking her on a journey through time and across landmasses. They both learn about the limitations of the stick and of themselves.
Lord writes Redemption in Indigo in the voice of an oral storyteller, reminding us both of the folktale nature of the original and also of the ambivalent nature of folktales. This storyteller persona constantly comments on the narrative, addressing the reader directly, reminding us that there are multiple perspectives on any story (“I have no way of knowing which of these characters will most capture your attention and sympathy”) and telling us about the purpose of such stories (“tales are meant to be an inspiration, not a substitute”). It is hard not to be utterly charmed by this narrative voice; it is funny, reflective, down-to-earth, and surprising. It helps regulate the pace of the novel, too, slowing it down in moments and interjecting the rhythm of the spoken word into the book.
While the narrator resists telling us what the story “means,” the journey that Paama and the indigo lord go on is one of self-discovery. The indigo lord in particular learns to have compassion for humans, a trait he gave up long ago. Seeing Paama’s urgent desire to use the stick to help others reminds him of his past, when he tried to use it in much the same way with disastrous results. The conclusion they come to — that they are better off helping people in more mundane, less magical ways — seems a bit nihilistic, acknowledging the cruelty of the world without finding any solutions. But when they notice the ways in which good things can come out of tragedy, and small blessings multiply over time, they each come to a sort of peace with the idea of not using the stick.
The key to all of this is human choice. While the Chaos Stick allows Paama and the indigo lord to skew probability in their favor (reminding me of lots of sci-fi stories about quantum theory and parallel universes), the choices people make — both good and bad — are what actually drive the plot. Accepting their own helplessness is part of the journey that Paama and the indigo lord undertake.
Ansige appears again, at the end of Redemption in Indigo, turned from comic relief into a tragic fool. The djombi who caused all the trouble — who I think is Anansi, the spider — shows up again, too. And both Paama and the indigo lord get their respective happy endings, although not the ones I was predicting for them. But even at the end of the book, the narrator frames their fates as a story, not a lesson, and just one of countless others that she could tell.
I listened to Redemption in Indigo as an audiobook produced by Recorded Books and narrated by Robin Miles. Miles’ voice perfectly captured the charming, clever narrator who drives this novel, and all of the other characters, but the funniest was certainly Ansige the glutton. Listening to this book certainly enhanced the experience, especially since the voice of the narrator is that of a storyteller.
Redemption in Indigo won several awards, including the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.
A delightful folktale made even more charming by Robin Miles’ narration of the audio version.