This is a very very good sci-fi book about trauma and building a new identity. (Also, yes, it did take me 3 months to review this, and yes, a bunch of it is vaguely colloquialized excerpts from my synthesis paper. Oops.)
To really explain you why you should read this, spoilers will need to be used. It takes the book until almost halfway through for the actual point of attack to appear. The problem is that it is impossible to talk in detail about this novel’s second half without talking about its themes, which are… a lot. So before recommending this book, I want to warn as a spoiler: [This is a book about incestuous child rape. Tan-Tan is repeatedly raped by her father, Antonio, and becomes pregnant as a result. The second half of the book goes into her rebuilding her identity after killing him. (hide spoiler)]
Tan-Tan, as a protagonist, is fantastically resilient, well-written, and compelling. But as the book starts, she is deeply torn apart by what has happened to her. To deal with what she has experienced, Tan-Tan crafts two separate identities: the good Tan-Tan and the bad Tan-Tan, one that is good and one to escape to in traumatic situations. The Tan-Tan we meet at age sixteen is not happy. She has been taught from age nine that she is bad, evil, by both Janisette, her stepmother, and Antonio, her father. This compartmentalization and splitting of identity is what allows Tan-Tan to survive. She even crafts yet another identity, Robber Queen. The Robber Queen’s words speak against mistreatment. When stories begin to spread about the Robber Queen, Tan-Tan barely can believe them. She has been so broken down; how can she be anything like the Robber Queen of myth and legend?
Tan-Tan learns, over time, to allow her Good Tan-Tan self, her Robber Queen self, to become not a persona but a part of her. This comes first and foremost from acceptance. In her many months alone, as she becomes close friends with Abitefa, the Douen woman she meets. She saves a Rolling Calf pup, one whose mother she has accidentally hurt: this helps her to remember that she is able to love and to care, that she is not evil. And she reunites with Melonhead, her childhood best friend. To Melonhead, she initially feels the need to perform something uncorrupted, and is ashamed of having been raped—“shit” (302), she says when it slips out—yet when he figures out, in what she has purposefully not said, he simply reaches for her hand. It is through these connections of love and kindness that she has learned that what has happened is not her fault, not something she must punish herself for. Bad Tan-Tan is not bad; she has done nothing. [“Is love that get the Robber Queen born,” the crowd says (320). Perhaps they are right. It is this love that gives her the courage, finally, to unite herself. (hide spoiler)]
There is a lot more to say about this book because I really liked this book. The ending made me cry, in a very good way. I really like the setting of the novel and the Douen culture: this feels like a single story in a very wide world, which is a type of sff I really love.
I also liked how Midnight Robber uses a science fiction and fantastical (this feels like a blend of both) setting to explore themes that echo real life. The sci-fi tech of the world is removed, but not an evil force: instead, a benevolent one. In the same 2002 interview, Hopkinson said this:
“As a young reader, mimetic fiction (fiction that mimics reality) left me feeling unsatisfied. The general message that I got from it was “life sucks, sometimes it’s not too bad, but mostly people are mean to each other, then they die.” But, rightly or wrongly, I felt as though I’d already figured that out. I felt that I didn’t need to read fiction in order to experience it. But folktales and fables and the old epic tales (Homer’s Iliad, for instance) felt as though they lived in a different dimension.”
Midnight Robber is written in Caribbean vernacular, which some reviewers seem to have taken issue with. Within a few pages, this language becomes easy to read—the prose, though complex, is incredibly well written. Hopkinson writes primarily in Trinidadian; for Midnight Robber, she purposefully blended this with Jamaican and Guyanese. Worldbuilding terms, meanwhile, have origins in various cultures: the word ‘Douen’ comes from a term for Caribbean children who die before their naming ceremonies. It’s easy to discount the level of thought that goes into this writing style. Don’t. Metaphorically, in Midnight Robber, this blend of dialects functions as the language of a people. In a 2002 interview, Hopkinson noted that she believes Midnight Robber could work in Yiddish, because: “Yiddish, near as I can tell, carries the historical sense of being the language of a people whose diasporic spread has at times been forced upon them, and it also, I think, has the sense of being a language ‘of the people.’” It is this that matters about Hopkinson’s language.
I think it is very easy to read literature by Caribbean authors, written in dialogues some may consider ‘other’ or ‘exotic’, and view it through that prism and lens. But though the language of this book is certainly noteworthy, and an extremely important part of its message, to afford mention only to such qualities is beyond the pale.
It is an excellent story and an incredible discussion of trauma, and Tan-Tan’s character development is very good. And the ending made me cry.
TW: [rape, pedophilia, incestuous rape. (hide spoiler)]