You know the story about Old Joe, the slave who helped dig all those people out way back then after the big hurricane? 1831, I think. For four sleepless days, Old Joe worked with the rescue team. He just seemed to know where there were people buried in the rubble. Since then, Cayabans talk about people who are 'finders.'
"You must understand; finders probably rank right up there with Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. But still; sometimes, not often, little Chastity used to find. Seemed so, anyway.... Once in a while I would get a prickling in the fingers of my left hand; the last two fingers that were fused together at the lowest joint. (pp. 72-73)
So Calamity Lambkin, the protagonist of The New Moon's Arms, explains after an instance of "finding." Born Chastity, she's just buried the father from whom she was estranged for almost forty years, thanks to a teenage pregnancy. She hasn't found things since she was a child, but at his funeral she feels a prickling in her fingers, and shortly afterwards stumbles across a decorative pin she lost decades earlier. Later, at the church social following the funeral, she feels hot and dizzy as well as itchy, and a plate materializes in midair. It's the plate she loved as a little girl.
While Calamity's finding abilities are a fascinating speculative element, Calamity and her social circle are more fascinating still. An independent and wild woman, Calamity isn't handling aging well, and the one who bears the brunt of her ill-grace is her daughter, Ifeoma.
'You're my mother,' Ife said. 'Why I can't just call you 'Mummy'?'
"Last night, she'd called me a 'matriarch.' Like I was some wrinkled, prune-faced dowager wearing a hairnet and clothes thirty years out of fashion. (p. 7)
Calamity's voice is strong and her personality complex and flawed. She's loving and selfish, flirtatious and a voracious learner, blind to how old-fashioned some of her views of the world are. The characters with whom she interacts are equally multi-faceted, and while there's overt magic in this book, there's also the more subtle magic of a vivid evocation of time and place and culture. The Caribbean islands of Cayaba, Dolorosse, and Blesseé are fictional, but they're well-grounded in telling details, from scenic descriptions to the rhythms of speech in the dialogue.
'Mummy, this is Dadda's cashew grove?'
"I could breathe again. 'It seem so.'
"'But it can't be the same one. How it could be the same one?' (p. 196)
Calamity's relationships are the heart of this book, particularly those with her daughter, late father, and long-missing mother. While she interacts with two potential love interests and her estranged childhood best friend, and these relationships are also important, it's family, particularly the fear of losing it, that drives most of Calamity's choices. It's the hunger for family that leads her to take in a young, strange boy she finds on the beach, a boy who proves to be one of Cayaba's fabled sea people, which connection Calamity makes thanks to an encounter she had as a child:
A membrane had flickered across the boy's eyes whenever the sun got in his eyes. He didn't seem to understand clothing. He had a bluish tinge to his skin.
Memories sideswiped me: of a bluish-yellow brown body bobbing and swimming as though the sea were its home, gurgling at young Chastity in an alien tongue. (p. 74)
While the boy's origins are intriguing to the reader, Calamity's more taken with his status as an apparently orphaned toddler, a substitute for the family she's lost through death and her own choices and quick temper. Being called "Mother" by her grown daughter, or "Grandma" by her grandson, reminds her of her age, but a toddler who calls her "Mamma" is no threat to her self-image, and he can't argue her decisions. She makes them with his well-being in mind, but Ifeoma's accusation about her motives rings true: "'Make me wonder it's who really wanted a black dolly to dress up and parade around and keep in a box…. Every good deed you do have a price attached" (p. 288).
Fortunately, while Calamity's stubborn and sharp-tongued, she's not so set in her ways she can't bring herself to start meeting people halfway when they reach out to her. Nor can she ignore the nature of the child she's taken into her home, and the possibility he might be better off returned to his people.
The sea people seem a form of selkie, sometimes appearing as seals and sometimes not. Brief sections of the book mention a Zooquarium with a monk seal population that changes on a daily basis. The last such section includes indications that the Zooquarium's monk seals, at least some of them, are among the shapeshifting sea people. Other brief sections of the book recount the tale of a group of shipwrecked slaves from whom the sea people are descended. In the final section, the slaves are granted their transformation by the goddess Uhamiri as a means of escaping the sinking ship.
"The people's bodies grew thick and fat. Legs melted together. The little boy chuckled, a sound she'd not heard from him before this. The chuckle became a high-pitched call.
"The people's faces swelled and transformed: round heads with snouts. Big liquid eyes…." (p. 316)
There are implications that Calamity's mother might have been one of the sea people. Unfortunately, this mystery is the book's weakest point. Calamity's mother simply vanished one night when Calamity was young. Her father was arrested for murder, then cleared. Calamity, Ifeoma, and one of Calamity's suitors all find clues pointing toward Calamity's mother as one of the sea people, but the thread is dropped almost as soon as the clues are found. Calamity seems to forget the mystery, and her curiosity over it, completely.
That aside, Nalo Hopkinson has a deft and masterful touch, and the rest of this book is tightly plotted and sharply realized. There are many pointed details about both poverty and the invisibility of aging women to society, the last a subject not often addressed in speculative fiction: "Next I got mobbed by a tittering of young women, all tight jeans, short skirts, and straightened hair. They flowed around me, chattering. One of them dropped her change purse. 'You lost something,' I said to her. She turned, searched her friends' faces to see who had spoken. I waved the hand with the pamphlet in it. 'Over here.' I swear she looked at everybody else before her eyes settled on me, not five feet away from her" (p. 128). Dismissed and ignored despite her forceful personality, Calamity's resistance to growing old is completely understandable. It's her methods that are problematic to the people in her life, and Calamity's realization of that, and choice to change it, is a journey both deeply affecting, often hilarious, and full of magic of many different kinds.
J. C. Runolfson most recently reviewed Dreadful Skin, by Cherie Priest and Coyote Road: Trickster's Tales, edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow. She is a speculative poet and short-story writer whose work has appeared in Lone Star Stories, Goblin Fruit, and Reflection's Edge, among others. She currently lives in San Diego.
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