Friday, July 13, 2012

The Disappearance of Irene dos Santos--Review

This selection for Venezuela might be one of the most difficult books for me to review for the challenge. I think, for most readers, that they've pretty much decided what kind of a review they are going to give a book before the first fifty pages are out; the author's skill with words, characterization, and pace are evident, and unless there's a plot twist (usually not for the better) the book's fate is pretty much sealed. "The Disappearance of Irene dos Santos" broke that rule for me; the reservations I had with the book were all explained in a tricky (yet completely satisfying) plot twist at the very end of the novel that made me rethink the entire book.

Even the title of the novel can be read in two ways. It can be translated as "Irene of the Saints" in Spanish, or "Irene Two Saints" in Portuguese--the latter is what I subconsciously thought it must be since the author's name is Portuguese. (Margaret Mascahrenas is actually of Goan descent and was raised internationally in Venezuela, India, and the United States). Everything is slippery in this story; even the principal saint of Venezuela, Maria Lionza, whose statue fractures at the start of the story (a true-life occurrence which was one of the author's inspirations for her novel) adopts many different shapes, according to the worshiper's needs: sometimes she is the orthodox Mother of God according to the Catholic canon; sometimes she is a mestiza riding a jungle cat. The story is told by a handful of people, who take turns with the narrative. Some of them don't seem to connect at all, until they do at the end.

Ostensibly this is the story of Lily, a young Venezuelan woman who is awaiting her first child. Lily's life seems mostly perfect; her father and mother are famous artists and activists, her husband writes for a well-known telenovela. True, they are all struggling in the economy, as the corruption endemic in Venezuela complicates making a living precarious, but a strong bond exists between the family members. When Lily slips and falls on a puddle of milk (a bit of a strange accident but hold that thought) everyone is happy to tuck her up in a bed made up in the middle of the kitchen to tell her stories. There seems to be only one flaw in Lily's perfect life--what ever happened to Irene, the school friend who disappeared when she was on vacation with Lily's family? Was she kidnapped by someone? Did she drown? Or what? Over a decade later everyone is still wondering.

As people gather around the pregnant woman's bedside, they tell her stories to entertain the waiting woman; a kaleidoscope of modern Venezuelan society emerges. In particular, Mascarenhas focuses on the oppression of the groups of non-Spanish peoples who live on the edges of Venezuelan society. The intimidation, corruption, and violence that people with more resources and power fall victim to is also a theme of the novel.

As I said, though, something in the book left me unsatisfied. The prose is only mediocre, but that wasn't what really bothered me. Lily seemed too perfect. Some of the plot twists seemed a bit unreal, and almost too neat. The pacing seemed off. Yes, the sub-plots with Maria Lionza and Lily's father were fascinating, but it wasn't quite enough. And why did that kid show up at the end? And where was Irene, anyway? It was all a bit weird. And then...

As I said, it all gets explained. I still didn't care for the author's prose style, and some readers might think the plot resolution was a cheap sleight-of-hand, but I sort of liked it. Tricky, tricky.

                                                       Three and a half Stars

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