The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson was the most unique book I had read in a while. We were approaching the mid-point in my first semester of second year and I was told that next book I would have to read was fantasy. Perfect! Finally I get to study a book from my favourite genre! Yet, I quickly realised this book was very different from the usual ‘Lord of the Rings’-style fantasy I have grown to love.
To put it simply, this book is about the magic of menopause, oh and mermaids too. Our main character Calamity, formally known as Chastity, is getting old, and she’s having none of it. It’s bad enough that the menopause is striking hard and fast, but then she finds a strange boy washed up on the shore.
Fellow classmates in my seminars had mixed feelings about this book, and in particular our protagonist Calamity. There are several scenes in the novel where she expresses some pretty homophobic and downright offence opinions. The thing that started to frustrate me though, is that some took this as meaning that Hopkinson aligned herself with these views.
In my opinion, I think the author wanted us to dislike Calamity, to feel uneasy with her thoughts and actions. There are plenty of other moments (which I won’t spoil) that certainly don’t paint our Calamity is a good light. If anything, I think the complex construction of Calamity shows that Hopkinson isn’t afraid to shy away from these issues.
The story itself captivated me. The way Hopkinson seamlessly blended fantasy with reality was so powerful I was starting to believe the mermaids could actually exist. Now I say that lightly. I don’t think Hopkinson conjured this narrative to get us to believe that there are merpeople in our oceans or that the menopause makes you find lost things. Instead, I believe her story become a commentary on both technology and ideas on colonialism.
Technology is heavily featured in the novel in the form of Evelyn, Calamity’s school bully turned doctor. Evelyn and the other doctors are constantly looking to correct the sea boy Agway, to remove the markings on his legs that help him swim and so on. It turns out this doesn’t fair out for Agway in the long run, but let’s just say he ends up where he belongs.
The colonial narrative runs pretty clear through the novel. Calamity and the other humans see Agway as something to be tamed and transformed to look and behave more human. What I found most significant, something which Calamity’s grandson Stanley of all people points out, is that at no moment does Calamity go to great efforts to learn Agway’s language. Instead, she perseveres to teach him English language and culture, much to her eventual failure. This may be reflective of the dominance of the Western culture and how assertive the West are in imposing their culture onto the rest of the world.
All in all, I am certainly considering giving this book a second read. I am pretty sure there were a million and one things I missed the first time round, purely from the richness of Hopkinson’s writing and ability to craft a truly compelling story. 4/5 stars.