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The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson
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“Know Yourself”, says 16 year old Sojourner “Scotch” Smith’s English teacher as though Scotch has not been struggling with the issue of identity all her life. Her father is a white Jamaican, her mother a black Canadian. She thinks of herself as black but her skin tone is so light, she can easily “pass” for something else (not that she wants to but it has been pointed to her by clueless people who think they are helping ). She also deals with the unfair expectations from her traditional father on what he considers to be femininity and how he expects her to be a good girl. At her older school she had been mercilessly slut shamed and bullied by other girls but now that she moved away from all that, she is finally settling down and hoping to be able to experiment more without being shamed for it (although the fear is always there). Or she was until she got into a fight with her best friend over her former boyfriend and those tar-black blemishes started to appear in her skin. Not to mention the pesky floating creatures which keep appearing around her.

That’s when the world suddenly, inexplicably, goes to shit. In London, the Big Ben is blowing giant soap bubbles and chanting dirty seventeenth-century drinking songs. In Canada, a Volcano suddenly appears in the middle of Lake Ontario and covers the sky with its ashes. Scotch’s brother is sucked by a bubble of light and disappears into the phone lines and Scotch herself is slowly becoming something else as the tar-blemishes start to engulf her, as she is chased by her aunt’s not so imaginary dog. As she goes around Ontario in search of her brother – and of a safe place – she encounters all sort of creatures including a Sasquatch and Baba Yaga and her house. All of a sudden the entire world is able to see the madness that everybody carries inside.

From a Spec Fic perspective the book is wonderfully surrealist. It is a Fantasy tale that mixes stories from the Caribbean and Russia and once the story gets going, it is easy to be sucked in by its trippy-a surprise-at-every-corner chaos. I enjoyed this aspect of The Chaos although only to a certain extent as, from a personal point of view, its extreme surrealism was unfortunately a deterrent for a more deeper connection to the story and characters.

Which brings me to its main theme: at its core this is a book of self-identity and discovery. And Scotch’s journey of self-discovery is not only interesting but also incredibly diverse and extremely honest in its approach. She has friends at school that are on a polyamorous relationship, her best friend is gay. And although she obviously loves her boyfriend she also thinks of experimenting and about snogging other people all the time. For a YA book this is a HUGE thing as more often than not, YA – especially Paranormal Romance – tends to be really problematic when it comes to its widespread tendency toward Heteronormativity.

Scotch is also incredibly aware of racism. She is a keen observer of how society treats her brother (who has a much darker skin tone) as well as being constantly on the lookout for hand waving racism. One scene early in the book takes place at a bar and she starts talking to this guy and he loses all points with her when he starts saying idiotic things about her being of mixed race (the “she can pass” comment for example is one of those things). At the same time though, even though she is very race-aware Scotch can still be a homophobe ableist dickhead in the same casual way she calls other people on racism. Even though her best friend is gay, she constantly uses homophobe slurs in internal thoughts and once she lets it slip how she thinks of herself as “normal” because she is not gay. I found this aspect of the novel very compelling: that the fact that someone is AWARE of racism for example doesn’t necessarily translate into being an instant ally to other identities as well.

That said, although I completely 100% agree and appreciate this celebration of diversity and the positive, progressive messages, I did have problems on how those were incorporated into the story. I can’t help but to feel that there was a certain forced didacticism that felt disjointed and disconnected from the overall story. I don’t know, I tend to think that in a scenario where the world seems to be going to shit, where you are in constant danger of death, where your brother is gone to gods know where, you simply wouldn’t have time to consider Issues. It just broke the flow of the story at points and I felt that because of that, the connection between Spec Fic and Contemporary YA was not as seamless as it could have been.

The Chaos is an interesting book but one that I didn’t quite love. It also has the dubious honour of being one of the most surreal books I have ever read. Ultimately, despite agreeing and admiring its thematic premise, I appreciated it more than I truly enjoyed it, if that makes sense. Still: a very good book, different from anything I have read in YA for a while (if ever?).
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