Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds, Jo Fletcher Books, 2014.
I had enjoyed a lot Karen Lord's debut novel, Redemption in Indigo, and this one came highly recommended. Though the narrative structure was different from what I expected, it is a scifi novel filled with great characters and both thoughtful and funny moments that makes it one of the best quest for happiness I ever read. It is also a novel that I read completely wrong and after a brief exchange with Lord, I realised I had to radically shift my way of looking at it.
The Sadiri have been all but wiped out from the galaxy by a sudden attack. They try nonetheless to rebuild their race and their society. Some of them arrive on Cygnus Beta, a melting pot of a planet, in search of some communities who would retain enough of the Sadiri genetical traits and of their customs, to marry and to have children. There, they meet a civil servant, Grace Delarua. Together, they will visit the different communities of the planet.
The narrative structure of The Best of All Possible Worlds is different in the sense that each chapter is more or less a self contained story happening within one of the communities of Cygnus Beta. But they are all linked by the exploring party visiting those communities and the relationships that form between the members.
Lord chose a first person narrator, Grace, and what a delightful first person narrator she is! A woman close to middle age, full of humour but with her own weaknesses too, her voice rang incredibly true. To me, Grace carried the novel: I could have lost my interest because of the different narrative structure but Grace kept me engaged with it.
The other characters are all well rounded, even the more restrained of them and it doesn't prevent the reader from becoming invested in them. Lord also has to be praised for offering a wide range of relationships, from friendship to romantic love and platonic love to the complexity of family ties, and she doesn't shirk from abusive relationships either.
Lord offers an incredible variety of being oneself and of human relationships and in turn, this offers a mirror to our humanity and our own relationships.
But the novel doesn't limit itself to a collection of situations and a range of relationships. As the title indicates, it is a quest for happiness and of one's place in the world. The title is a quote from Leibniz, an 18th century German philosopher, whose work was mocked with great gusto by Voltaire, an 18th century French writer, in a philosphical tale, Candide. So, at first, Lord's novel felt to me like a rewriting of Candide, with characters who explore the world and themselves to find what is happiness and where you could find it. Even some scenes seemed to me as a direct hommage (the utopia, the women being abused...). But Dr Lord was kind enough to reply to some of my questions on Twitter and to explain that I had completely missed the point (I'll never thank her enough for her patience in doing so).
So let's start again!
The Best of All Possible Worlds is the story of a race, brutally wiped out, who comes to a melting pot of a planet where people from different races have mixed, where there are many cultures and traditions, some inherited, some adopted.
In the same way, the once all powerful Sadiri are looking to preserve their culture and genetic traits, but on Cygnus Beta, they will have to compromise. And this is where the best of all possible worlds may end up being, in this melting pot, in encountering others, once a bit looked upon but who just have another take on life, and each can learn from the other.
As another reviewer put it, this is the West Indies, Lord's home, a melting pot of a land, with Afro Caribbean, White Caribbean, Asian Caribbean and Indo Caribbean people.
The Best of All Possible Worlds ends up being a novel that runs on parallel lines: you could read it just as a character driven story in a quest for their place in the world and happiness, but you could also read it as a metaphor celebrating multiculturalism, peace and diversity. The characters travel on Cygnus Beta, but they also travel within their own selves. They encounter otherness, but sometimes the otherness is theirs. There's both microcosm, often at the characters level, and macrocosm, often at the planetary level, and both driving to the realisation that the best of all possible worlds is right here, in the mixing and encountering and sharing.
The Best of All Possible World is funny, thoughtful and it will be the perfect fit for anyone tired of the doom and gloom of our world, who would wish for a bit of human kindness, in all its forms.
The writer's website.
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