‘The two sides of the novel don’t quite seem to gel’ – Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra

woghazChile, 1985: as the neighbourhood gathers to shelter from an earthquake, a nine-year-old boy strikes up a sort of friendship with Claudia, the twelve-year-old niece of his neighbour Raúl. Claudia asks the boy to keep an eye on her uncle, and so he does – soon discovering that Raúl has frequent rendezvous with a mysterious woman. But no sooner has the boy prepared to reveal all to Claudia than she relieves him of his duties, and moves away.

This narrative then breaks off, and we meet a (similarly nameless) writer in the present day, who is apparently writing the noel we have been reading. He’s struggling to find his place in life, beset by a nagging feeling that his parents wrote the novel of the world, leaving his generation as “secondary characters”. The doubts and tensions raised by this feeling work their way into the writer’s novel, and this project becomes his focus – if he can get the novel right, maybe life will follow. We then return to the ‘fiction’ as, twenty years on, the boy-turned-man meets Claudia once more, and learns the truth.

Alejandro Zambra’s third novel (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell) thus sets up a parallel between its two storylines. The young boy’s inability to grasp the realities behind adult interactions is nicely handled (as in the scene where he sees his father and Raúl talking about what he assumes to be “solitude”, but is presumably “solidarity”), as is his older self’s reaction to learning what was really going on in his childhood. But the two sides of the novel don’t quite seem to gel: the writer storyline doesn’t reach as far into its themes, which unbalances the book as a whole.

Any Cop? It’s a mixed bag. One half of the novel is good, but the other doesn’t quite match up to it.

David Hebblethwaite


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