This is not your usual fantasy novel. Let me get that out there right out of the gate. And it isn't that Karen Lord is a writer of colour from Barbados, who apparently built this novel out Caribbean storytelling techniques. It's that none of that is obvious from simply reading the book, which takes giant leaps sideways so often that it's impossible to keep up. At least I couldn't do it.
Fortunately, I was kept enthralled by Lord's prose, which is highly engaging and literate without being pretentious. It's beautiful writing. I just wish I knew what it was telling me because I don't. I'm not even sure how much of the book is real to the principal character. The vast majority could well be taking place in her imagination after a near fatal accident. Is this a story or is this trauma or hallucination or brain damage? Is she alive? Is she in a coma? Is she firing on all cylinders? I couldn't tell you.
This character is Dr. Miranda Ecouvo, who is the forensic therapist in the City, which apparently has no other name but which does not seem to have a parallel in our world. I got London out of it, but that may be me projecting my own culture and history onto something that comes from an entirely other angle. It's a prestigious place, inside which nobody can live unless they're a Freeman, a title conferred for reasons of which we're unaware, other than they're not the product of fame or wealth.
Anyway, Ecouvo has just played a major part in putting a serial killer away. Walther Grey murdered seven people but he'll murder no more and she should be proud of that accomplishment. However, it may or may not be that simple. She's promptly whisked away into some other place, which isn't likely to be physical, by Chance, one of the Undying.
He believes that there's more to her case than just Walther Grey. He thinks that Grey was guided in his actions by an unseen mastermind keen on becoming immortal and that there may be another murder still to occur. Chance and his brother, known as the Trickster, have many talents, not least the ability to conjure up labyrinths that allow the exploration of nightmares and memories in what plays out like holodeck explorations of the past and future. Oh, and the past and future are both fluid; only the present is immutable.
The problem is that neither Chance nor the Trickster can get to the heart of this mystery because their talents are somehow being blocked from doing so, and the all-powerful Patience is somehow restricted from helping them. That means that they need Dr. Ecouvo and so they conjure up labyrinths for her to explore her own nightmares and memories to find the answers needed.
I love the ideas in play here and I'm keen to read up on how they tie to the Caribbean storytelling techniques from which they're apparently sourced. I'm sad to say, though, that I got lost quickly and often, so was unable to work alongside Miranda in her investigation. More traditional mystery novels are jigsaw puzzles that the readers try to solve before the detective at play. I was unable to participate in that process here, being carried along instead by the author's glorious imagination.
While Dr. Ecouvo is the key character in this novel, she often takes a back seat to Chance, who is as knowing as she isn't and as able to drive things forward. In many ways, Miranda is carried along just like I was, a puppet on the strings of Chance, merely one who grasps the concepts and shifts better than I could. She's sharp and she's clever, but she's also very accepting of wild and wonderful change, which is probably a good thing because otherwise she might have ended up completely insane.
This is a highly unusual mystery, not least because it begins after the case at hand has ended. It's reopened not through discovery of new facts but with otherworldly beings showing up out of nowhere with what could easily be seen from another light as conspiracy theories. The work to do isn't out there in the world, knocking on doors and asking questions, but through travelling in time, both forward and backward, and inside Miranda's own memory, guided all the way to places she might never have gone.
I can't say I didn't enjoy this. I did and, frankly, had trouble putting it down to sleep. However, I didn't understand it and I'm not sure that another time through or a couple of them would help much. I need a set of detailed annotations or maybe a map, like many did after watching Inception. Maybe a reading list would help. I'd google for answers but I don't think I know the questions to ask.
It may or may not help for me to read 'Redemption in Indigo', also by Karen Lord. 'Unraveling' is apparently a standalone novel and there's nothing on the jacket or inside the covers to suggest that this is part of a series but it would seem that some characters began in 'Redemption in Indigo' and I do wonder if reading that would explain some of what I didn't grasp here. It's based, in part, on a Senegalese folk tale, it seems, and that may or may not add some of the background that I think I need.
Much of the point of writing a review is to help prospective readers know if they want to pick up a particular book or not. Usually, I can recommend or I cannot recommend. Here, I have no idea which way to go. I think I want you to read this and understand it and tell me what the heck I'm missing. Have at it! ~~ Hal C F Astell