Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!
I like weird books.
A few of you know this first-hand, because every year I press weird books on you at Sirens with a rapturous, “You have to read this. It’s brilliant.” But for most of you, this might seem strange: The single fastest way to get me to pick up a book is to say, “I dunno. It’s weird?”
One of my happiest things as a reader is when a book surprises me. It doesn’t happen often. I read a lot of fantasy literature and, let’s just say that maybe it’s only when you’ve read huge swaths of the genre that you start to realize how derivative or unoriginal or predictable so many books are.
But weird books surprise me often. Perhaps it’s their casual-at-best attachment to traditional storytelling structure. Or their appreciation of metaphor, the absurd, that last bit left untold. Maybe a narrative voice that’s unreliable or unusually distinct. An awkwardness in a character or a setting ever-so-slightly askew. As a reader, I delight in being kept slightly off-balance.
I used to joke that there was no fantasy book too weird for me: I’ve delighted in a book comprised of vignettes based on women and monsters, in which a (friendly!) sasquatch penis featured prominently. I’ve exulted in a haunted house book, where the denouement is the house’s eating the protagonist. I’ve happily devoured a book that reads half like Machiavelli and half like a fairy tale, and that had no discernable ending. My favorite Angela Slatter story is about a world-class coffin-maker who poisons people, my favorite book so far this year about a cannibal chef to the gods.
I did discover, though, only last year, that I had to stop telling people that no book was too weird for me. I’d read a stack of short story collections, each stranger than the last, and wow, there are definitely books too weird even for me. (Please tell me which of you are my bookstore demographic seeking “books too weird even for Amy”!) At some point, I stumble from delight to confusion to discomfort to uncaring. It’s just that my delight goes a really, really long way.
Which is as good an introduction as any to Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson.
I’m going to tell you what Sister Mine is about and you’re going to think, “Hell, that’s not so weird. I once read a story where a girl got pregnant from a pot-bellied stove.” (That is, incidentally, an actual, quite fabulous story.) But I’m here to tell you that, while the premise here may seem commonplace enough, the execution of this book is weird.
Let’s get to it.
Makeda has had enough, thank you very much. Tired of being hen-pecked to death by her more talented twin, she stalks off to find an apartment of her own, abandoning both her family home and her fraught relationship with her twin.
That is, of course, the same plot as a thousand books: unhappy family member flounces off to make a life of their own. But, of course, not all families are magic.
Makeda and her twin, Abby, are born of a godly father and a human mother. Their father’s family, pissed at the fraternization with a mortal, enact severe punishments: their father becomes a mortal, their mother a sea monster in Lake Ontario. And by the way, Makeda and Abby were conjoined twins, separated shortly after birth, an operation in which Abby lost part of a leg, while Makeda lost her mojo (think of that as her magic, her connection with her father’s family’s spirit world).
With their mother in Lake Ontario and their father a fragile human, the girls are left with each other for comfort, for antagonizing, for troubleshooting. (That comfort, by the way, includes twinsex.) And as I mentioned, as the book opens, Makeda has left Abby, off to find a place of her own.
The plot spirals out from there, bogged down in a number of subplots that may or may not become important later on. (Pay particular attention to the haint stalking Makeda.) In fact, in many ways, the subplots distract from and even suffocate the plot itself, including a sharp turn into a surprise focus in the third act.
Perhaps the most notable piece of the book is Nalo’s setting: mostly black characters in an urban Toronto infused with Caribbean folklore. As always, her dialogue is exquisite: her vocabulary, her vernacular, her speech patterns all carefully considered, conveying thousands of layers more than the same dialogue in another author’s hands.
Will you like it? How weird do you like your books? Because this one – while perhaps not as inaccessible as other work by Nalo – is weird. Nalo pushes the boundaries of what we find normal or acceptable behavior by a woman, all while making Makeda entirely sympathetic. Who hasn’t had family squabbles? Who cares if this family is divine? Who hasn’t been chased by a haint? Or had a mother turned into a sea monster? You see where I’m going with this… Nalo takes the ordinary and, through use of language, absurdity, and fable, turns it into the extraordinary, and that extraordinary is very weird, indeed.
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for an entertainment company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and seven years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.