On the surface, Nalo Hopkinson’s YA novel is about the chaos which ensues after a volcano emerges dramatically in Lake Ontario.
It also, however, takes on the chaotic elements of the reader’s society: the sexism, ableism, homophobia and racism that characterizes the everyday world of the reader.
Sojourner, called Scotch for the heat and flavour of the Scotch Bonnet pepper, confronts many of these phenomena in her personal life.
Having gained an unwanted reputation in the school she previously attended, and with one of her parents being black American and the other white Jamaican, Scotch often feels judged by others for being too much of one thing and not enough of another.
What complicates Scotch’s situation is that not only are others judging her on these matters, but she judges herself that way in many instances, and, even more significantly, she also catches herself judging others.
In many ways, The Chaos is an ordinary teen novel, Scotch a typical struggling-to-find-herself teen.
Take this passage, for instance:
“I stuck my tongue out at Tafari. Okay, so now I was acting like some kid, but whatever. It was the best I could come up with while fighting the urge to get up and kiss him, tell him I was sorry, take him to a quiet table where I could explain everything.”
It’s the stuff of everyday in the life of a teenage girl. A romantic interest (Scotch is attracted to guys, although not all of the relationships depicted in this novel are heterosexual) and a desperate need to be understood and recognized. Complete with frank talk of s*x and drugs, Scotch is a realistically drawn character.
But what Scotch wants to tell Tafari is not-so-everyday. The passage elaborates on that, and it includes a glimpse of Scotch’s humour at the end.
“About the marks on me. About the Horseless Head Men. And then he’d look at me like I was some freak, and first his eyes would get far away, and then the rest of him. I could be magic like that.”
Drawn from about a third of the way into the novel, the reader has a solid understanding of Scotch as a character, and a sense that there is something inexplicable occurring, but the chaos remains rooted in realism.
What happens, happens.
There are more questions than answers and that, too, is realistic, but just as the open discussion of teen s*x and drug use might irk some readers, some will find this element of realism frustrating, and they will crave the kind of tidy resolution that is only possible in fiction.
Regardless of the degree of discomfort, the reader accompanies Scotch through a landscape that is suddenly and inexplicably changed.
(Sounds like adolescence, doesn’t it: no wonder so many YA novels take on the coming-of-age story with the trappings of the fantastic.)
“There were other people, also seated in rows of seats. If you could call them ‘people’. A few looked human, except for the bandicoot heads. And the arms made of smoke. And the fact that you could see through their chests and they each had three hearts beating inside. And the jointed metal legs. Okay, they didn’t look like people at all. But way more so than the ones that looked like…”
What do you call the monstrous parts of human beings? How do we understand the monstrous? These are the bigger questions that lurk beneath The Chaos, but it’s also a romp of a read, with the kind of bright-spirited creations that readers of Nalo Hopkinson’s earlier works have come to expect.