Is­abel Al­lende’s lat­est work is a book suf­fer­ing an iden­tity cri­sis

The queen of mag­i­cal re­al­ism’s lat­est is a book suf­fer­ing an iden­tity cri­sis.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By CATHER­INE ROBERT­SON

Read­ing Is­abel Al­lende’s lat­est novel, In the Midst of Win­ter, is rather like be­ing told sto­ries by the kind of aunt who swoops in from ex­otic lo­ca­tions and whose ré­sumé in­cludes night­club singer and Re­sis­tance fighter. You lis­ten at her feet, eyes wide, as she re­gales you with ­out­landish tales of ro­mance and vi­o­lence, but with such charm that you for­give all her nar­ra­tive’s gap­ing flaws.

This book’s main flaw is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be: a com­men­tary on Amer­ica’s treat­ment of South­ern and Cen­tral Amer­i­can im­mi­grants, a re­minder of that area’s bru­tal re­cent past, a study of char­ac­ters com­ing to terms with trauma and loss, a love story or a mur­der mys­tery-cum-road trip. In try­ing to cram in ev­ery one of those as­pects, it loses any sem­blance of nar­ra­tive co­her­ence, and only those read­ers who en­joy Al­lende’s ­en­gag­ing, witty style are likely to hang in there.

The main char­ac­ters are Lu­cia Maraz, a 62-year-old Chilean aca­demic, di­vorced

from an un­suit­able hus­band, who now lives in a Brook­lyn apart­ment owned by a fel­low aca­demic, Richard Bow­mas­ter, whose anx­ious reclu­sive­ness is a way of cop­ing with a ter­ri­ble in­ci­dent in his past.

Into their lives comes Eve­lyn Ortega, a young es­capee from gang-torn Gu­atemala, who works il­le­gally as a care­giver in the house of an abu­sive man who, as the three dis­cover, may also be a mur­derer.

The novel starts in the present, but soon rewinds to the back­sto­ries of all three char­ac­ters, par­tic­u­larly Lu­cia’s and Eve­lyn’s. Th­ese chap­ters have in­ter­est and drama, but Al­lende rushes us through events in rather jour­nal­is­tic fash­ion, which de­prives us of both nar­ra­tive ­ten­sion and in­ti­macy with the char­ac­ters.

And then what seems to be shap­ing up as a novel about grad­ual rev­e­la­tion lead­ing to mu­tual af­fec­tion and un­der­stand­ing sud­denly veers into Fargo ter­ri­tory, and Lu­cia, Eve­lyn and Richard are on the road, try­ing to dis­pose of a dead body.

It’s as if Al­lende got bored with her char­ac­ters be­ing snow­bound in ­Brook­lyn and was happy to set­tle for even an ­im­plau­si­ble ex­cuse to win­kle them out. But the shift in tone is too jar­ring, and worse, the made-up vi­o­lence un­der­mines the se­ri­ous mes­sage of the true bru­tal­ity re­counted be­fore. We stop be­liev­ing and car­ing, and that’s a shame, as this novel could have been ex­cel­lent if Al­lende had kept us con­nected with re­al­ity.

IN THE MIDST OF WIN­TER, by Is­abel Al­lende (Si­mon & Schus­ter, $39.99)

What seems to be shap­ing up as a novel about grad­ual rev­e­la­tion lead­ing to mu­tual un­der­stand­ing sud­denly veers into Fargo ter­ri­tory.

Is­abel Al­lende: her novel could have been ex­cel­lent if she had kept us con­nected with re­al­ity.

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