"The Chaos" by Nalo Hopkinson
Sixteen-year-old Sojourner, nicknamed Scotch after the scotch bonnet pepper for her hot dance moves, feels like she doesn't fit in anywhere. At home, she is the perfect daughter, at school she pushes boundaries. Her father is White Jamaican and her mother Black American and she feels like she doesn't fit in with either group. Most people don't believe that she is black and she wishes her skin was darker, just like her brothers. She's just transferred to a new high school after bullying incidents at her old one. She's not the most popular girl but she's doing okay at this one.
But lately, Scotch's skin has been breaking out in patches of a sticky black tar-like substance. And she's been seeing flying, bodiless horse heads wherever she goes. She's been doing pretty well at hiding it until the Chaos occurs. She's out one night with her older brother when a bubble of light appears. Scotch dares her brother to touch it and when he does, he disappears. Right then a volcano emerges in Lake Ontario and the world is plunged into turmoil.
As Scotch searches all over Toronto for her brother, she encounters supernatural characters including a witch with a flying house that lays eggs, a sasquatch, and a rolling calf that can take on different shapes. As her body becomes more and more covered with the sticky substance, Scotch encounters her aunt who helps her understand the mess that is occurring and helps her on her way to finding her brother before she becomes completely unrecognizable.
The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson is a young adult fantasy novel that incorporates Caribbean folklore into a story about self-acceptance and self-discovery in those difficult teenage years. This is the first young adult novel from Hopkinson who is an established fantasy writer. She expertly captures teenage angst, especially the issues that face young adults of mixed race in the high school setting.
The first section of the book that sets up Scotch's story was very well written. The clash of cultures and values between her home and school life were very identifiable. And I appreciated the attention Hopkinson gives to Scotch's feelings about her skin colour, especially the difference between hers and her brothers. I often find that mixed race families are presented as the children looking the same and this is far from the truth and can often cause internal turmoil for many children, which is happening with Scotch.
Then the Chaos happens and this is where it just got strange for me. Not bad strange, just strange. I'm pretty new to the whole speculative fiction/fantasy genre. I'm pretty much just used to apocalyptic novels so this was way out of my element. And while I found it fascinating and my mind was working hard to create the pictures of what was happening in the book, there were moments where it became just a little too much for me. It felt like some things were being thrown into it because they could be and for no other reason. And that made it a little disjointed for me. I get that we can't expect fantasy books to be neat and tidy. I know that they're not going to make complete sense by the time they wrap up. But there were a few moments that I just couldn't connect to the characters and what was happening around them.
That being said, I found it very interesting the way Hopkinson weaved Caribbean folklore into the story. When I first read the blurb of the book I thought this would be the perfect one for me to read with Scotch's family being half-Caribbean and living in Canada, since my household is half Caribbean and Canadian! But even knowing some Jamaican folklore already, there were still a few things in the book that I had to ask my husband to explain. People who are completely unfamiliar with this folklore may not recognize it or understand it all in this book and in that way I wish things were explained a little more. She also weaves in elements of other cultural folktales which gives this book a global feel but again need some outside reading to fully understand.
With all that being said, I think this would be an enjoyable novel for teens. I am more than sure they would recognize the feelings Scotch has, the difficulties of high school and the need to fit in somewhere. It's a good story about wanting to be someone else and getting that wish. The beauty of this book is that whatever one is going through, it reminds them that others are struggling with their identity and that when we find the courage to face our troubles head on, we find what we're looking for. And I am sure that adult fans of the fantasy genre will find this enjoyable, probably surreal and a little out there, but in a good way.
I read this book as part of A More Diverse Universe, hosted by Aarti at BookLust. It's a weeklong celebration of diversity in speculative fiction and you can find the schedule here. I'm a big fan of diversity in reading but new to the speculative fiction genre so I'm excited to be a part of this wonderful event. I'm thrilled to have discovered Nalo Hopkinson from this. I love what she wrote in the FAQ section her website:
I don't implant themes and symbols in my work as right or wrong answers with which to plague long-suffering students. Sometimes there is deliberate symbology, sometimes it happens by accident and I'm not aware of it, and sometimes the reader derives a symbol from my work based on her or his understanding of the world. If you see a particular symbol or relationship in a story of mine, then just go ahead and make a good argument for it being there.