Tag Archives: 20th century

THE INVISIBLE MOUNTAIN by Carolina de Robertis

This haunting novel begins in 1900, when many people in Tacarembo explained things to themselves by means or folk-tales or legends. It is a novel with three protagonists. The first one, Pajarita disappears as a baby and mysteriously reappears in a tree. It is left up to the reader to decide whether the lost baby did in fact turn up in the tree, as the family tells it, or if, in fact, we are talking about two different baby girls, one disappeared and dead and the second who happened to be in a tree when the family was looking for the first one. No matter, the family takes Pajarita to its heart, and when she is about fifteen she attracts the attention of a young man from Venice, who asks for her hand in marriage. Pajarita moves with him to Montevideo, produces children, including a daughter Eva, who is the second protagonist of this novel.

 

Eva loves words even from an early age, but her family is poor. At the age of ten, her father asks her to sacrifice her education so that she can work in a shoe shop and earn the money they so desperately need. Eva complies, but she is not treated well by the owner of the shoe shop. Her father, who is friendly with the shoe shop owner, chooses to believe his friend rather than his daughter, creating a family rift. It is not surprising that one day, Eva decides to leave. Through a chain of events, she finds a rich husband and has two children, Robertito and Salome, the third protagonist. By this time, she is living with her family in Buenos Aires. But it is now in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the time of Evita Peron, and the political situation becomes unstable. Eva and her family are forced to move back to Montevideo.

 

Salome grows up surrounded by her relatives from her mother’s family in Montevideo, Uruguay, but again, political instability rears its ugly head, and Salome pays a very heavy price for choices that she made when she was a teenager. (You will have to read the novel to find out what they are).

 

This was such an interesting novel for someone like me who doesn’t know hardly anything about Latin America, and enjoyed learning about it from three fascinating women. These women, and all that they had to endure from their menfolk and from society kept me turning the pages of a book. Carolina de Robertis is also an excellent stylist. There was some truly beautiful writing in this novel, powerful use of metaphor and simile. My favorite moment occurs when Ignazio, the young man from Venice who eventually marries Pajarita is sent by his grandfather to make something of himself:

“Listen, I have a little money in the floorboards and I’ll send you to the New World if you swear you’ll build something else, something useful over there, something worth building. Anything. Swear.”

It broke, then, the canvas stretched over the world, and Ignazio was not numb, not in a painting at all: he stood in a raw, unfinished world, surrounded by the dead, exposing a fresh layer of living skin.

“I swear,” he said.

What a wonderful way of describing someone’s sudden understanding that actions have consequences. What a great way of evoking sudden maturity. Five stars.

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Book Review: INHERITANCE by Lan Samantha Chang

Lan Samantha Chang is a well-regarded writer who is also the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop.  Her first novel INHERITANCE is the story of one family’s journey as they navigate the vicissitudes of 20th-century china, from the rule of the Emperors, through the first republic, to the second world war, to exile and communism.

The story centers around two sisters, one fierce and strong who represents China, and the other quiet and fey, who represents Taiwan. As the story goes along, it gradually becomes clear that the quiet sister (Yinan) is having an affair with her sister’s husband Li Ang.

The story’s strength lies in its resonant descriptions. Ms. Chang begins her novel with a powerfully-described prologue that shows the sister’s mother just before her death visiting a temple to ask for help. The descriptions of the ruined pagoda, the mysterious, slightly sinister nun, and the stillness of the lake convey the spirit of quiet hopelessness that suffuses the attitudes and expectations of the sisters’ mother Chanyi.

Given that Ms. Chang is such a good writer, it follows that I should have remained engaged with her main characters. But that is not true. I don’t think this is simply because the story is written in limited 3rd rather than 1st person. I think it is because Ms. Chang’s writing style incorporates too many “tells” that have a distancing effect. To give one example:

“Junan found herself unable to speak. She opened her mouth and closed it. Despite her preparations, the news had taken her by surprise. Finally, she thought of a question: “When will the wedding be?” (Page 71, paperback edition.)

This is beautifully written, but it leaves me cold. Chang is describing the moment when Junan learns that her fey younger sister has actually landed a suitor.  Perhaps it could have been re-written this way:

“Junan couldn’t speak. She opened her mouth and closed it. Had Yinan actually acquired a suitor? It seemed impossible. The thought gave her a strange sensation in the pit of her stomach. Aloud she said: “When will the wedding be?”

I am not claiming that I write better than Lan Samantha Chang (!), but I am saying that we live in a sea of sensations, and that we have to convey that when writing about our characters as a way of drawing the reader into our stories.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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