A review by Fionn Mallon for the Los Angeles Review of Book.
When something real but traumatic or taboo occurs (e.g. see the [Caribbean] region’s entire post-Columbian history) and it cannot be spoken of directly, it finds expression in parable or folklore. Tell the truth, but tell it slant.
KAREN LORD’S NEW NOVEL, Unraveling, mixes up a witches’ brew of folklore, archetype, and social critique and serves it in a mug of serial-killer whodunit. Following the path of her first novel, Redemption in Indigo, which uses the scaffolding of African and diasporic folklore to build a modern fairy tale with deep roots, Lord again tells a tale that involves a human protagonist led on a bizarre voyage by blue-hued supernatural entities. Lord draws upon the familiar fabric of mythic and religious symbolism to weave a winding yarn about redemption and its demands upon the individual who bravely commits to connect the dots of an uncomfortable truth. However, in the novel, as in life, spotting the signs is neither easy nor straightforward.
The guiding narrative follows Miranda Ecouvo, a human forensic therapist who lives in a mysteriously familiar place known as “the City,” and has been on the chilling case of a serial killer with a reverence for tradition. This arc, though, often plays generous host to the many other stories Lord wants to tell. Searching for the core of the novel resembles wandering through a labyrinth — the central metaphor around which much of the book is built.
Lord’s characters, not quite bound to a definable realm, create labyrinths and then wander their twists and turns to solve mysteries and illuminate significances that had slipped quietly into the shadows of the unconscious. In this world of myth and symbolism, Lord frolics around like a demigod, siphoning off pieces of public dream, playfully blending and decanting before reinserting her dabblings into a story that feels, at times, like both crime fiction and fireside fable.
The labyrinths are complicated. After all, they’re labyrinths. Religious and mythic symbolism pervades the book. With the brother deities Chance and the Trickster acting as Virgil-analysts, they journey together through the halls of memory, dredging the therapist’s hellish accounts of the grisly killings. But Chance and the Trickster are not bound to the here and now the way that humans are. To them, everything is a sort of interdimensional rhizome, a spider’s web that threads through time in curious ways. Feeling a tug on the thread, or spying a suspicious person in a memory, they veer off course, latching onto the new mark and spelunking through their personal histories. Their ability to move in and out of different minds puts a thorn in the side of a completely solipsistic interpretation, which might otherwise make narrative sense.
Miranda drifts between our world and others, often awakening in the body of a woman recovering from a near-fatal traffic accident. It is here that the novel’s fictional dimensionality doubles. As a reader, we are tasked with choosing how we wish to interpret events. Our protagonist is in clear duress, mentally and physically. Do we accept the magic as it unfolds, or do we chalk it up to illustrated realism?
At times it seems like all of this Chance and the Trickster business could be just a fantastic coping myth for an officer of the law who has been deeply disturbed by a horrific case, or the zany byproduct of brain chemicals swishing around after a traumatic injury. Lord discredits neither of these possibilities, but neither appears sufficient, either. The claim she seems to make is that the truth is both and neither. Human minds are wondrous things and with them, we create marvels; we become marvels. Lord prompts us to ask if it is so crazy to think we might have gods dancing around in our skulls.
As mentioned, the novel is so full of mythic furniture that it could be read with any number of competing allegorical roadmaps. In Unraveling, the Trickster — one of the most prevalent African and Afro-diaspora mythical personas — takes the form of a spider as he haunts the killer’s conscience. Lord’s Trickster is a direct likeness of the African deity, whose perhaps most iconic iteration is as the spider, Anansi. Lord paints him as a distant (but feeling) hero-aide.
The Trickster’s brother, the undying deity Chance, is front and center in Unraveling. Chance is an intriguing entity who represents the ideal moment for action, reminiscent of the Greek Kairos, typically interpreted as both a son of Zeus and temporal concept. Chance navigates the world via a vast web of threads. Possibilities and potentialities orient and guide him, and, like an insect drawn to heat, he is drawn to the energy of willful action. He wanders a dark tapestry, searching out interesting and significant crossroads. It is at the intersection of Miranda’s old life and new life that Chance comes to her, offering a look into the darker rooms of her own mind, and imploring her to make a hard decision in light of what is illuminated. Together, they wander through labyrinths, diving deep into the magical pits of the mind in order to solve the case and find the real killer.
To understand the killer — the real killer — we have to understand the novel’s setting. Like Miéville’s Besźel and Ul Qoma, Lord’s City has just enough of what we recognize to make us feel uncomfortably at home. But, where Miéville opts for painstaking detail, Lord is incredibly sparse with her descriptions, telling us only what we need to know. It is a bustling metropolis where only the uber-privileged landholders, referred to cringingly as Freemen, may live. The rest are day-laborers, who retreat to the suburbs at night. Miranda exists somewhere in the middle: she inherited property from a distant relative and so she is technically a Freeman, but she doesn’t belong to any of the relevant clubs or institutions of the entrenched gentry. In a way, she is a sort of prisoner, held captive by the promise of opportunity that has been bestowed upon her, yet tacitly forbidden from critiquing the obvious ills that pervade the City. She sees the inequality and the brutality of the city life, but says nothing because she eats at the masters’ table. At least, at first.
But eventually she comes to see the truth: the real killer is the City. The City pollutes the minds and the morality of its inhabitants, particularly those who, like Miranda, exist in the gray areas of its castes. It is not the Freemen who are to blame, for they are as fossilized as the walls of the original settlement. In this way, Lord steps out of the stereotypical elitist-cabal-type mystery plot and offers a more discerning reveal, aligned more closely with contemporary theories of sustaining social inequality. It is not the masters who zealously hold the mast steady, but those who have been ceremoniously given the task.
Miranda, then, is a sort of redemption of her namesake. Unlike Shakespeare’s naïve dreamer, she is not what anyone might call sheltered. Her job involves climbing into the mindset of vicious criminals. And yet she remains blind, willfully or otherwise, to the deep-rooted evil that has grown all around the City. But whereas Prospero’s daughter succumbs to a magical sleep that blinds her to the ugly maintenance of the status quo, Lord’s Miranda undergoes the opposite. Like a Jungian exemplar, she looks inside, and she awakens: “When I was in the rehabilitation center in Delma, I had a lot of time to think about people and cities and brokenness. Badly broken bones never heal perfectly, and neither do broken societies.”
Lord’s otherworld mirrors the dynamics of the earthly one. The sons of Patience navigate a gray area themselves. They are undying, but not quite immortal, powerful beyond imagination, but not beyond compare. They are ordered around and cowed by omnipotent angels — that’s right, angels: wings and shimmer, the full Hosannah — who seem to maintain a dispassionate but ruthless cosmic justice, all the while with the disposition of haughty teenagers given daddy’s fire-sword.
By having both sets of characters, the earthly and the ethereal, examine the machinery of their own worlds, Lord crafts an engaging parable of agency and redemption with a resonance of Augustinian allegory. The exploits of Chance and the Trickster, though, are far more important to the story than just metaphor or masque. They represent the old gods, the earthly gods, the personable gods. Their world is flawed, their characters are permeable, and it is they who come to the aid of a human in need. It is they who become intertwined and attached to the humans they interact with. They are the pre- and postcolonial gods, gods of luck and trickery, of travelers and heavy rain, of stolen objects and forgotten places. They are gods that listen and speak back even if they are not omnipotent. They are gods who stumble and fall, as we do. Gods who are capable of grave mistakes and of redeeming those mistakes. They are gods whom we can empathize with, learn from, enter into communion with.
In the same way that Lord’s Miranda is a fierce revision of Shakespeare’s, Lord also amends Augustine’s two cities. In both cases, the original ends in defeatism. Miranda clings to the troubled Prospero like a ballast, and Augustine provides a singular treatment course: the worldly city is evil, but follow the church and we’ll get there in baby steps. Lord subverts both myths of patriarchal saviorism. Lord’s world may be as darkly familiar as our own, but it is a world of possibilities and decisions. Her characters are not stuck in predestined loops. When Miranda sees the evil side of the City’s mythology, she realizes that she cannot save it by climbing its ranks of power. After all, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
Making use of her own tools as a storyteller, Lord offers a glimpse into what pieces of our social mythology may be in need of their own redemption story. Her critique of both The Tempest and The City of God rejects the binary notion that modernity is either inherently good or evil. By crafting supernaturals with human vulnerabilities and needs and setting them within modern scenery, Lord offers the same social and personal medicine that fables of gods and goddesses once afforded. We all want an arena where we can try things out, play with probabilities, explore what might be or might have been: a lucid dream with real-world application. This is precisely what the stories of gods, both heroes and tricksters, tragic or redemptive, offer to those willing to walk the bridge of belief. Rather than an isolated heaven and earth, Lord exposes the delightful and rewarding magic of a blending of spheres, an interplay between humans and the divine that occurs when we are able to see our own humanity reflected in the faces of our gods.
Joseph Campbell famously observed that “[m]yths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths.” Unraveling, then, is a dream within a dream. Lord knows that the personal and the real are not inherently at odds with one another, and that there is a gorgeous, muddy magic that clings to every corner and every facet of our lives. As Lord’s fiction career continues to take off in leaps, she has been reverently compared to paragons of SF such as Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin. It is not hard to see why. Both are genre demigods in their own right, and both write in such a way that is both timely and timeless, confidently usurping the conventional limitations of era in setting. But what sets Butler and Le Guin in a league of their own is also the ability to chart a passage, clear and true, through the false boundaries between natural and supernatural worlds. It is this amphibian movement that ushers their readers into a delicate oneiric state where real and surreal blend into one another, and where magic can become a deeply personal artifact.
All the elements are there in Unraveling, but its marrow is still partially encased in the labyrinth of symbolism built up around it. The novel is bold and grand in scope, while at the same time firmly embedded in the redemptive journey of the individual. For all its ambition, it is surprisingly successful. Perhaps its crowning achievement, given the substance of its world-blending, is its inability to fit snugly into the container of genre. It is mystery, fantasy, magical realism, parable, and exegesis all wrapped up in a swirling thundercloud. It is critique and sorcery, sweeping and personal. It’s pure Caribbean magic. In an interview with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Lord had this to say about genre and her craft: “I have found that this way of truth-telling and reality-perceiving poses more of a problem for the publishing industry than it does for writers. We can write anything we like. […] We don’t hold too tightly to genre boundaries. […] In the end, we can always shelve it under ‘Caribbean.’”