‘The last stalks of my tolerance for clichéd literary devices were crushed out of me’ – Villa Pacifica by Kapka Kassabova

Travel-writer Ute and her fiction-writing husband, Jerry, take a slight detour on their trip down the South American pacific coast to check out a little-documented coastal village, Puerto Seco, as well as the newly-opened national park nearby. Looking for local accommodation, they’re directed by a travelling salesman to an eco-resort that doubles as an animal sanctuary – the eponymous Villa Pacifica. While Jerry works on a new story, Ute sets about researching the area for her guide-book. She investigates the history of the Villa and its owners and explores Puerto Seco, getting to know residents and tourists alike, all the while growing increasingly disturbed by the peculiar atmosphere of the place. When the El Nino storms hit the coast, the travellers are trapped and tensions rise: infidelity, murder and madness quickly follow.

Villa Pacific’s cover blurb sells the novel as ‘seductive and unsettling’; I’d probably substitute ‘unsatisfactory and tedious‘. The premise is appealing, if not the most original: a mismatched posse of travellers and locals are penned into a weird little tropical resort in the middle of a creepy storm, and things start to go awry. It’s Cluedo crossed with Bel Canto, with a dash of Jurassic Park (the endangered animals) – not to mention Hotel California, when Ute starts to realise that the calendar in Villa Pacifica seems eerily out of synch with that of the outside world. There’s nothing much wrong with this mix, and though I found the prose a little clunky and over-expository, I hoped it would all take off in some unexpected direction – or at least that a faintly familiar scenario might be endowed with some sparkle by some memorable characterisation. That didn’t happen. The plot – slight as it is – doesn’t pick up any speed until the very end (and then it gets ludicrous) and in the meantime the endless back-and-forth between the characters only serves to illustrate how one-dimensional and stereotyped they are. There’s the self-confessed lazy Mexican, the fun-loving Australian backpackers, the obnoxious American businessman and the wise old native woman. Had enough? How about the sexy labourer, the unfaithful husband and the hippy breast feeder? Ute spends her time wandering between the resort and the village and thinking about visiting an artists’ colony up a hillside in the national park, but there’s no particular reason for the reader to care whether or not she gets material for her book – nor does she seem especially bothered about it herself. Furthermore, Ute, the travel writer and our de facto eyes and ears in this close third-person narrative, fails to sell the country, the ocean, the resort or the jungle. The ’giant plants’ were ‘chlorophyll green’; the water is warm ’like soup’. When you compare this description of the South America landscape with Ann Patchett’s recent effort, State of Wonder, it’s left really wanting. And the descriptions of her emotional state are hardly any better. Ute develops a crush on one of the resort’s employees and decides all she wants is to be with him, to ’be released from herself, from her fears, from her desires.’ Meeting him accidentally at breakfast, she thinks ’she had always been terrible at flirting and being in a secure relationship for so long had crushed the last stalks of womanly artfulness out of her.’ Well, the last stalks of my tolerance for clichéd literary devices were crushed out of me when Jerry, Ute’s husband, announces he‘s writing a story called ’Villa Pacifica’. If the creepiness hinted at by Kassabova – the Hotel California time-loop plot – had paid off sooner, and I hadn’t had to wade through over two hundred pages of low-level bickering and non-action first, I might have forgiven some unimaginative or downright silly metaphors along the way, but in fact, by the time it all does go haywire, I was thoroughly bored. 

Any Cop?: I guess if you’re a sucker for anything with a hint of magical realism or weirdness to it, then you’ll get a mild kick out of this. Otherwise, it’s overlong and underwhelming.

Valerie O’Riordan 

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