In Other Words South of Nowhere by Min­erva Koenig and A Coun­try Road, A Tree

296 pages

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - by Jo Baker

When last we left Ju­lia Kalas, a semi-re­formed crim­i­nal liv­ing in the fic­tional cen­tral Texas town of Azula and pro­tag­o­nist of Min­erva Koenig’s 2014 de­but novel, Nine Days (Mino­taur), she was wrestling with the con­flict be­tween her natural de­sire to solve mys­ter­ies and her deep aver­sion to law en­force­ment. In Koenig’s fol­low-up, South of Nowhere, Ju­lia is as acer­bic as ever, and her tal­ents are be­ing ac­tively sought by the lo­cal po­lice force and a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor. They don’t know too many de­tails about her past and don’t much care. She’s that good at sleuthing, though lately Ju­lia’s pri­vate shame is that her brain, which loves puz­zles, seems to be on the fritz. She has been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing time loss: One mo­ment she is look­ing at a dead body found buried un­der the floor of her new fixer-up­per farm­house, and the next she is stand­ing out­side, with no mem­ory of the min­utes in be­tween.

Ju­lia gets roped into a case that sends her to Mex­ico with the pri­vate dick; he’s on the hunt for a miss­ing woman who went south of the bor­der for a tummy tuck and never came back. Along the way, they spend the night at a Bud­dhist re­treat on the bor­der and, af­ter some in­trigue in Juárez, wind up reen­ter­ing the U.S. by way of the To­hono O’odham In­dian Reser­va­tion in Ari­zona’s Sono­ran Desert, a com­mu­nity to which Ju­lia turns out to have strong ties. We learn about her child­hood and the root causes of her cyn­i­cism, which are con­nected to her bouts of dis­so­ci­a­tion. Par­al­lel to this, the miss­ing woman turns out to be con­nected to the body in the floor­boards. As the plot thick­ens, so do the psy­cho­log­i­cal and spir­i­tual el­e­ments of the story, with Ju­lia at­tempt­ing to ad­dress what­ever is go­ing on with her brain, less out of an in­ter­est in her in­ner de­mons and more out of a sense of self-preser­va­tion, which tends to be her pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion in all things.

Koenig has such a con­tem­po­rary and mul­ti­cul­tural out­look on the world that what is most grip­ping is not the spe­cific mys­ter­ies she has Ju­lia pur­sue, but rather their con­text. Her en­vi­ron­ment is ru­ral bor­der­land, high­light­ing and hu­man­iz­ing peo­ple who are of­ten au­to­mat­i­cally the bad guys in genre mys­tery nov­els or made to seem for­eign, exotic — or back­wa­ter — for the sake of dra­matic ten­sion, through a very An­glo-cen­tric lens. Koenig ac­knowl­edges that lens and at­tempts to move as far be­yond it as she can. She also cre­ates a com­plex psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait of Ju­lia. Tough as she is, she’s not in­de­struc­tible, but she doesn’t lose her edge as she learns more about her­self. Koenig never presents Ju­lia’s com­pounded and com­plex trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences as easy to un­ravel. Read­ers who have been down sim­i­lar roads will likely ap­pre­ci­ate re­vis­it­ing the early part of that jour­ney.

Ju­lia is rem­i­nis­cent in many ways of the char­ac­ter of Mary Shan­non, a fed­eral mar­shal for the wit­ness pro­tec­tion pro­gram on the de­funct USA Net­work se­ries In Plain Sight, which was shot in Al­bu­querque. Both women are quick to anger and prone to act­ing be­fore think­ing, but Ju­lia doesn’t in­dulge in any po­etic voice-over, and she has zero hind­sight. When we leave her, she has sud­denly and pro­foundly trans­formed her life and is at­tempt­ing to over­haul her mind. Whether or not she can change her na­ture re­mains to be seen. — Jen­nifer Levin

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