________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 38 . . . . June 1, 2012


The Chaos.

Nalo Hopkinson.
New York, NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster), 2012.
241 pp., hardcover, $18.99.
ISBN 978-1-4169-5488-0.

Subject Headings:
Interpersonal relations-Fiction.
Family life-Canada-Fiction.

Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Robert Bittner.

*** /4



"What in the world?" I said.

The owner shrugged. "It used to be one of the bar televisions. I think it's still trying to report the news, only it comes out in song. I can't make it stop." He sighed. "All the others turned into giant clown faces and just rolled out the door. I ask you, how do you write that up on an insurance claim? Fifteen years I've been running this place, nothing like this has ever happened. It's those bloody terrorists."

The two cops glanced out the broken picture window, to where an active volcano was spewing lava. The male cop shook his head. "Yeah, I don't know about terrorists, but I don't think anything like this has ever happened anywhere in Toronto." His voice shook a little. The quaver made him sound a little bit young, and a little bit scared.

Scotch started out with no greater worries than winning her dance competition and lamenting her latest breakup. Sure, she's not on the greatest of terms with her parents, and things are a little bit tense around the house ever since her brother came back from prison. But then she starts seeing bodiless horse heads floating around, and strange spots begin to break out all over her body and the gross herbal paste she's been trying out isn't having any effect. Then one night, while she's out at the bar for a poetry reading, a strange bubble of light floats out from under the stage. Scotch dares her brother to touch it, and when he does, he disappears, a huge flash overtakes Toronto, and a volcano emerges from Lake Ontario, spreading the Chaos along with its cloud of ash.

      Nalo Hopkinson's novel is as confusing as it is intriguing; as chaotic as it is beautiful. The plot is random and confusing, but also impressive in its depth. Scotch is a fully realized character with real-life problems that are woven realistically with fantastic elements, such as the strange spots taking over her body and her visions of bodiless horse men. She is struggling to overcome her past, reconcile with her brother, and work things out with her ex. Her friend Ben, a wonderfully strong and openly gay character, accompanies Scotch through much of the book, showing up to talk sense to her and make her realize that life isn't as terrible as she thinks.

      Scotch's new friend Punum, a lesbian who requires a wheelchair, is a wonderful addition to the novel, bringing to life a much under-represented group of teens in YA novels, namely teens with disabilities. Her inclusion is not used as a "lesson" or an overwrought message, either, which makes her that much more likeable and well-rounded. Her role in the book is also to bring Scotch some much needed criticism, as she is sometimes easily distracted by juvenile issues. The world is thrown into chaos, and yet she is still worried about her blouse, which was very expensive, we are repeatedly told, and she ponders the outcome of her dance competition throughout the book, a rather insignificant event considering the events unfolding in the city around her.

      There are moments where the book seems difficult to reconcile with contemporary understandings of North American society. People are strangely calm about some of the crazy events unfolding around them. Scotch's parents seem remarkably calm when they find that their car has suddenly sprouted cheetah legs in place of wheels. And her friends are incredibly cool and collected considering bodiless horse heads are floating around, a volcano has sprouted from Lake Ontario, and a house on chicken legs is on a rampage through Toronto. While the book is already a fantasy in many respects, the ways in which people react feel unrealistic regardless.

      Hopkinson's writing is densely packed with a mix of reality and fantasy, blending elements of contemporary culture and fairy tale mythology, such as in the inclusion of Baba Yaga and her chicken-leg house. The chaos in The Chaos does get confusing at times, leading to the necessity for some re-reading to catch the full meaning of certain passages. There is meaning hidden within the chaotic prose, and it requires effort to uncover, something which could turn off some readers. However, to get through the complexity comes with its own reward, discovering what truly lies beneath Scotch's surface, and exploring humanity's reaction to a world in chaos.


Rob Bittner is a graduate of the MA in Children's Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He will begin doctoral studies at Simon Fraser University in September 2012.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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