Nalo Hopkinson,
Skin Folk
(Warner Aspect, 2001)

A student drafts an essay on Caribbean folklore: Magic In the Real. This student later turns out to be a life-stealing night creature, living in a human skin. Her essay might be a description of the world in Skin Folk, where gods, myths and strange magical quirks exist as straightforwardly as a corner store and tell their story in vibrant Caribbean dialect.

Nalo Hopkinson has great fun turning old fairy tales and myths into completely new creatures. Like Anansi in "Something to Hitch Meat To" she shakes old stories into showing their hidden and sometimes truer faces. "Riding the Red" recognizes Little Red Riding Hood's sometime job as a coming of age rite. But this Red is seen through the grandmother's memories, and given back the joy and power that should accompany a coming of age. Rather than a warning against growing up, this tale has bit of a caution for parents who try to keep their parents from adulthood. "The Glass Bottle Trick" gives Bluebeard a Caribbean, racial twist and no secure happy ending. The intricate and compelling "Under Glass" breaks the story of the Snow Queen into icicle shards, with Kay showing up just long enough to die and the heroine of the story unclear.

Not every tale has such a dark face. The terrible cockatrice that begins as a "Slow Cold Chick" becomes a tool of liberation through fire, even as a young woman has to dive deep into the river to find her true self. And the "Precious" sister who speaks in gems and gold finds a way to free herself and save her teeth. Edging from fantasy into the world of sci-fi, Hopkinson brings two lovers back together through virtual reality suits with a bizarre malfunction in "Ganger."

Dark or shining, the stories in Skin Folk are told with an exuberance of language as captivating and surprising as the flying trees in "Whose Upward Flight I Love." Most of the stories carry at least a bit of Hopkinson's beautiful dialect style writing. While I'm in no position to judge its authenticity, its natural pace and range of expression helped create the feeling of wonder that flows through all these stories.

There's real magic in Skin Folk, beyond the dazzle and flair of gods and faeries. Every story is built on the power of transformation, whether it's a person turning into a mermaid or the daily miracle of growing. Hopkinson pours her energy into these word and paper spells, and hides nothing under her own skin. Step away from your own mask and into the world of Skin Folk.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 16 November 2002

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