Natalia Sylvester Lake Union Publishing, 2014 In Lima, Peru, a wealthy couple, Andres and Marabela, are not happy. He’s conventional, kind, and a bit of a wimp. The couple met at university, and Andres, who was supposed to marry his childhood friend Elena, fell in love with rebellious, artistic Marabella. Now, almost twenty years and two children later, Marabella is dissatisfied and has already left Andres once. When the novel begins, Andres waits for Marabella to come home for dinner, and when she does not, he at first thinks she has left him again. It dawns on the reader even before Andres realizes it, that Marabela has been kidnapped. The first chapter is dated 1992, a time when Peru was convulsed with conflict. Communist rebels, who called themselves The Shining Path, terrorized the countryside. As Andres muses, “in the nearly two years since the new president was elected, his promises of a crackdown on terrorism have turned as brittle as cracking paint….the city is now the perfect incubator for a thriving business of kidnapping. While the majority of the country’s police force focuses on controlling armed uprisings and terrorism, smaller crimes are overlooked.” With the sickening realization that his wife has been taken, Andres must negotiate with the kidnappers to get his wife back, all without arousing suspicion or telling the police. He hires an experienced negotiator. Sylvester rachets up the tension in this psychological drama as Andres must deplete his bank account, get rid of everything he has, to satisfy the kidnappers’ demands. Without the housemaids, without a job, he is diminished, sucked dry. Marabela’s suffering, though, is much worse, of course. It is only when Andres meets his childhood friend Elena again that he begins to understand how great that suffering was. Elena, too, had been kidnapped, and is now in a mental institution. Does all this horror add up to a great plot? The story is well told. But Sylvester gives us an ending that evades the emotional devastation that she’s led us toward. Still, the book stayed with me. Its portrait of a society in which the unpredictable is normal, where people who can afford it live behind high walls and locked gates yet still can’t protect themselves, is very unsettling. Sylvester excels in her showing of a disintegrating marriage. The first half of the book is in Andre’s viewpoint, the second in Marabela’s. This enables empathy for them both. Interestingly, the strongest characters in this book are women. The maids, Consuelo and Carla, Andres’ mother Lorena, and Elena and Marabella all have distinct and powerful personalities. Sometimes poor Andres seems to be as powerless against their emotional manipulation as he is against the kidnappers’ demands.
By Jade Sharma Coffee House Press, 2016 Reading this book is like being inside someone else’s skin. It’s not comfortable. Maya, the book’s protagonist, is a heroin addict. She also eats Xanax and other prescription drugs like candy, all to numb herself from an existence she appears to hate. She’s bored with her husband, Peter, though he seems a nice guy, if ineffective and alcoholic. After only seven months of marriage she takes a lover. Ogden is sixty-ish and her professor. At the beginning of this novella, Maya has failed to finish her thesis. It doesn’t take much to understand that this is because graduating would force her to grow up and actually do something in the world. I wanted to shake Maya. She’s bored because she’s boring. On page 1 she describes herself in her living room, “where I lay around, hardly living.” Apparently (we are told) a good writer, she is mired in a loop of self-loathing. Locked in her own misery, she is unable appreciate anything. At the end of page 1, “Sometimes in the early morning, a man somewhere in the building would yell about the music being too loud. But I never heard any music. I only heard him yelling.” This is a plain enough sentence. It is fantastic writing. By the end of the first page, despite the fact that we already know Maya has really heavy problems, we are locked into her world view. She never hears the music, only the yelling. Maya is self-destructive because she never feels skinny enough, pretty enough or white enough. She’s Indian, married to a Caucasian man. Her mother is critical of her and her deceased father ignored her. By page 23 we know that Maya knows that Peter will eventually leave her and that Ogden, her “safety net”, will do so also. Maya is the classic unreliable narrator because while she believes she’s hateful, her husband’s family is actually very kind to her. But if you believe the worst, it will happen. The rest of the book chronicles the inevitable result and the consequences. The book is structured in a series of paragraphs rather than chapters. Told in the first person, in the past tense, then the present tense, the story switches to the second person in the last two pages as Maya looks to the future. The second person narrator, in which the protagonist is “you” is unusual in literature. It distances the reader from the narrator. Sharma is showing that “you”, meaning the future Maya, is not someone she recognizes, because it describes someone who is relatively healthy. Maya is brutally honest in her existential angst. She’s also occasionally witty. The link between drug addiction and mental illness is apparent, arousing our compassion. Jade Sharma has managed quite a feat here – to write a page-turner about an unsympathetic character. This book is beautifully produced by Coffee House Press. This non-profit organization, which “champions transgressive, genre-blurring writing by (mostly) women,” has produced a winner in Problems. Hopefully Jade Sharma will write more.