Lost and Found
THE NEW MOON'S ARMS
By Nalo Hopkinson
Warner. 323 pp. $23.99
Unusual things happen to Calamity Lambkin. A cashew orchard sprouts in her backyard overnight. Toys she played with as a child drop from the sky. A half-drowned toddler washes up, tangled in seaweed, on her stretch of beach.
Is it magical realism Caribbean-style, or is it menopause? Before each event, Calamity feels flushed and feverish. She gets that itchy-fingertip feeling she used to get as a kid right before she found something that had gone missing. It's like the bumper sticker says, "These aren't hot flashes, they're power surges."
In Calamity's case, that might be true. Hot-tongued and hot-tempered, she has spent most of her adulthood vigorously not living up to her birth name, Chastity. Why should things change now that she's in her 50s? Menopause or no menopause, she has no plans to mend her ways, much to the chagrin of her grown-up, oh-so-serious daughter, Ifeoma. At least Calamity's grandson, 9-year-old Stanley, approves of her -- not that she minds anybody's disapproval in the slightest. "You cuss like a sailor, you have a temper like a crocodile, but you more honest than any judge I know," a new love interest, Gene, tells her.
In fact, she has her eye on two younger men: Gene, a Coast Guard officer whom she meets at her father's funeral, and Hector, a marine researcher who helps with the rescue of the little boy on the beach. Calamity takes the lost boy under her wing until someone figures out where he belongs. But nobody on the big island of Cayaba can figure out what language he speaks, so Calamity borrows one of his own sounds and calls him Agway.
On her Web site, the Caribbean-born Hopkinson tells readers that she writes "speculative fiction," which she defines as "fiction in which impossible things happen." Her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, dived into a dystopian, near-future version of Toronto, the city she now calls home. Her next book, Midnight Robber, went off-world to tell an island-inflected story of Carnival, incest and the outlaw life.
Although Hopkinson has invented Cayaba -- along with Blessée and Dolorosse, two smaller islands that play cameo roles -- The New Moon's Arms makes the most of the sea-meets-sand world of the author's own childhood. It's a pleasant place to hunker down for a while, and Calamity is good, salty company. She gets drunk, calls people names and manages to be a good soul despite it. On these islands, rumors of murder seem less real than rumors of mermaids. Even the local monk seals have a mystery about them, revealed in a folktale that intertwines, seaweed-like, with the main story.
The New Moon's Arms is a dance of lost-and-found: A lost boy helps a woman find elements of her past and herself that she hadn't even missed. "More of my rediscovered treasures," Calamity thinks, "come sailing back to me on the seas of a night sweat." Hopkinson knows not to get too sentimental about any of it, thanks in large part to her heroine's unsinkable sense of humor: "I rubbed the itchy hand. What was going to appear out of thin air this time? My first training bra with its pointy, itchy cups of white cotton? . . . Some things need to stay lost."
I can't say I expect this novel to come back to me, years from now, like one of Calamity's lost treasures. But for a while, anyway, it let me hear the mermaids singing. ·
Jennifer Howard writes about the humanities for the Chronicle of Higher Education and is a contributor to the anthology "D.C. Noir."