Nalo Hopkinson is a major literary figure by any definition: as a Canadian speculative fiction writer, as a writer of the Caribbean diaspora, as a writer, full stop. Her new short story collection, Falling in Love with Hominids, out this past summer from Tachyon Publications, goes some way to explain exactly why her reputation is deserved.
Hopkinson’s first collection, Skin Folk (2001), won Locus, Sunburst and World Fantasy awards; Falling in Love with Hominids comprises eighteen stories that have appeared in the fifteen years or so, mostly in original anthologies, since Skin Folk came out. The stories encompass every genre of the fantastic: There are science fiction, fantasy and horror stories to be had here. But whatever their genre, what they have in common is precise writing and exquisite control of craft. Every word feels deliberately chosen; nothing feels out of place or extraneous.
These are also stories of considerable subtlety, stories in which a single word like douen or mooncalf can contain multitudes and unlock clues to the story’s meaning. Situations that appear everyday and ordinary at the start of the tale are revealed to be deeply uncanny by the end. If Hopkinson has a modus operandi, this is it: Her stories are mysteries that reveal themselves in a measured and matter-of-fact way, with little flash but understated power.
One such mystery unfolds in “Message in a Bottle.” Told from a surprisingly detached point of view that doesn’t make sense at the outset, it’s the story of an odd child named Kamla who is obsessed with shells and speaks in unsettlingly complete sentences. In the course of things the story reveals that she is one of many hyperintelligent children suffering from something called delayed growth syndrome — except that that isn’t what it is, either. The plot is all revelation, told from the point of view of Greg, someone indifferent to children and only tangentially involved in Kamla’s life, but in the end we understand why he’s the viewpoint character.
The stories can go out of their way to seem scrupulously normal, at least at first. Take “Emily Breakfast,” a story that begins simply enough with a man waking up to fix his husband breakfast; that this is anything other than a tale of quotidian domestic existence is disclosed almost incidentally as their cat “was busily cleaning and preening herself with her rough tongue, stretching out her pinions till each individual feather at their tips separated from the others.” Wait — feathers? Apparently so. What follows is an engaging little slice-of-urban-life story that just happens to have very uncanny domestic animals, as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world. (Animals, uncanny or otherwise, make recurring appearances in these stories.)
This ordinariness can lull readers into being less prepared for the unexpected. Hopkinson focuses her attention on the ground level rather than the big picture, and gives time and consideration to her characters. All the better to cut the ground out from under their — and her readers’ — feet. The technique is particularly effective in her horror stories (the splatter-horror twist in “Blushing,” the parasitic pollination of “A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog,” the inevitability of “Old Habits”) and in the story that opens this collection, “The Easthound,” which begins in extreme close-up, with children playing a word game, but zooms out to reveal a postapocalyptic landscape and an existential danger that every one of them must face; their game of loup-de-lou is pregnant with meaning.
Toronto is a recurring setting, Caribbean folklore a recurring inspiration: These are stories that are grounded in place and culture, making them that much more effective.
Falling in Love with Hominids reveals a writer at the height of her powers. In any short story collection, original anthology or even magazine issue you resign yourself to finding a few really good stories alongside the merely competent. Not so here: The overall quality is very high, each story existing in a sort of state of grace.
I have to confess that this was my first encounter with Hopkinson. (Don’t look at me like that: Her books are on my to-read shelf … along with eight hundred or so others.) This made writing this review more of a challenge, because my approach involves placing the book I’m reviewing in the context of the writer’s career and the field in general. But conveying the delight and the shock of encountering a voice for the first time has its value as well. I look forward to reading more of her work.