Gregory E. Rutledge
The first thing I want to say is that it is a pleasure to read a teen book which features the city of Toronto so graphically and unapologetically. I could follow the action in The Chaos down to the street. This story had an incredible sense of place for me, partially because it's set in my hometown and I could recognize many landmarks, but also because I think place is one of the things grounding this very unusual book.
The Chaos is Nalo Hopkinson's first novel for teens, but she has a stellar reputation for her adult work, which has been adopted by the sci-fi/fantasy community although her writing has at times been described as boundary-breaking. She has won or been nominated for many major awards, including winning the World Fantasy Award for her anthology Skinfolk. Her themes typically encompass issues of race, culture, queer identity, and history. Her books have been variously described as urban fantasy, black fiction, occult fiction, speculative fiction and magic realism. I think the term magic realism applies best to this particular novel, but Hopkinson pushes the genre to it's extreme. The term that kept coming to mind as I read The Chaos was surrealism. This novel is a bit like Kafka, a bit like Charles de Lint, but wilder, richer and with more diverse imagery than either of them. I think what gives it its richness is partly Hopkinson's gift for description, but mostly her ability to mash up the folklore of extremely different cultures without blinking an eye. As an experienced reader, that's something that appeals to me. It feels very fresh. Like Kafka, Hopkinson does not offer explanations for her fantastical situations --we never know exactly what the Chaos is, what drives it or how and why it manifests on earth. Hopkinson just plunges her heroine into unreality and watches her grow. This book is going to frustrate readers who want to understand the internal logic of fantasy worlds. It's going to frustrate readers who like closed endings. It's even at times going to frustrate readers who want to know what the heck's going on. We don't always know. To get into this book, you have to let yourself go a little. But I think it's worth it.
The plot centres around a young woman, Scotch, who is the child of a white Jamaican father and a black Canadian mother. Her parents are strict and the atmosphere at home is tense and uncomfortable. Strange things are happening to Scotch--she keeps getting black, sticky rashes on her skin that mystify doctors and that grow frighteningly quickly, and she has started seeing surreal floating creatures that no one else seems to notice. At an open mic with her older brother, a strange bubble of light appears, and her brother vanishes. A volcano shoots out of Lake Ontario, mythical creatures take on form and substance, and almost every physical object transforms into something else. Traffic lights become highlighters, bathroom stalls become singing clock towers. Scotch's black rash starts to thicken and cover her whole body like a crust, threatening to turn her into a monster, and as she races to find her brother, Baba Yaga and a Rolling Calf (a monster from Jamaican folklore) seem to follow her around. It's like a crazy, dangerous dream. But amidst all the panic and confusion, Scotch is given the opportunity to make choices and show courage. She is given the opportunity to grow.
I haven't talked at all about the secondary characters and how strong they are, or about the clever way that Hopkinson smashes all sorts of stereotypes. This is a book which combines depth with imagination. I'm not sure it will be the right book for the mainstream teen reader, but for the teen ready for something a bit more experimental, it's a good choice.
Here are some short video clips of Hopkinson discussing influences on her writing: