“What is the good in ruminating? The past cannot be changed. It will only replay again and again. — Anaïs Echeverría, p.35
Ghosts. Ghosts are everywhere in this novel. Ghosts of Anaïs’ childhood; the ghosts of past generations of the Echeverría family; the ghosts of the African slaves her ancestors had owned who had toiled under the hot Peruvian sun to keep the plantation’s arid soil turned and irrigated so that food could grow and the orchard thrive and who were beaten to death when they revolted or their strength failed them. The ghost of Julia, the seventeen-year-old maid who fell out of a second-storey window to her death.
For the past seven years Anaïs has lived in England. Now she returns to Peru to sign off papers for the sale of her old family home to developers who want to demolish it and construct a block of luxury flats in its place. The house holds so much history — and so many ghosts — that Anaïs struggles to even unlock the door and cross the threshold after the taxi has dropped her off. She feels overwhelmed by her memories as she realises just how deeply connected she is to her country and to her family’s legacy.
“It was time that crowded into the casona, rising from the mound of earth below its foundations, rolling in from the sea, passing down from the neblina that shrouded the sky above. Time accumulated, thick and insistent like the Limenean dust from all directions. The very house seemed to breathe it in, to squeeze moments, lived and not yet lived, into its walls, its floors, into its empty spaces.”
As long-forgotten memories besiege her she experiences depersonalisation, seeing herself from outside her body and also creatures in the spaces around her that only exist in her imagination.
Many of dual parentage will empathise as Anaïs struggles with who she is. Daughter to a Peruvian mother and an English father, she has an English fiancé and is expecting his child. Anaïs worries about how this duality will affect her offspring; not only the foetus growing in her womb, but also its children and grandchildren:
“I had a presentiment of how, with each generation, the slice of Peruvianness in my children and children’s children would halve and halve and halve again, a quarter, then an eighth, then one sixteenth, fading smaller and smaller, pruning me away, until my heritage is completely forgotten.”
Quinn constantly plays with reality, illusion and distorted perception, littering her narrative with numerous literary devices. There is Julia, who following her tragic death, becomes a saint, variously healing, helping, protecting those deserving who come to her, as well as those who don’t believe in higher powers, but find themselves in trouble. Through Julia’s story the author explores Peru’s history: the pain, the violence, exploitation, and frustrated dreams of those born and raised in the country as well as those who come here seeking a better life. But, modern life in Peru is far from easy. There is a lot of bureaucracy and many restrictions which affect people’s daily lives and while many feel hope for a brighter future there is, beneath the surface, resentment about governmentally enforced constraints on individual liberty.
Through the ghosts of dead aunts, uncles and grandparents Quinn takes the reader back to Peru’s earliest days: its legacy of slavery, the fight for justice for the country’s indigenous people, many of whom were brutally tortured and murdered by the Spanish. She shows the yawning disparity, in centuries gone by, between the rights of the poor and those of the wealthy.
Time, as a concept in itself, plays a prominent role as a literary device. History, the author extols, is bound to and controlled by, time. She writes:
“Time is recycled just like water from a subterranean spring that becomes a rushing river racing to the sea; then clouds and rain cry into the soil and burrow deep, returning once more to the hidden realm. Like life itself which, when extinguished, is buried and returns to the earth only to germinate again.”
Time leaves its mark on Anaïs’ ancestral home which is a character in its own right. It represents both an actual residential dwelling of bricks and mortar and a metaphor illustrating the march of history. Quinn demonstrates the fleeting nature of time in this rather strange scenario. In half a day, while Anaïs is out, the house ages by decades. Leaving it on the morning after her arrival to arrange for the power and water to be switched back on she turns back to look at its well-maintained façade and gardens, while inside dust sheets still cover the furniture. On her return, the exterior of the house appears decayed and the garden is overgrown with weeds. When she enters, however, all the lights are on, the house is clean, the dust sheets have been removed and the furniture arranged just as she remembers during her childhood. Here Anaïs ponders about what she finds:
“How is it that the house’s lúcuma façade, pristine in the morning, can be weather-beaten and crumbling by the afternoon. I left it only a few hours ago, immaculate, the virgin paint unmarked, unspoiled. I returned home and the shutters hung dangerously from their hinges, the paint peeled off in strips as large as handbills, while the roof yawned black holes like missing teeth where the tiles had slid away and shattered on the dusty patio below.”
By the end of novel all the themes and individual storylines — Julia’s role, Peru’s history, the legacy left to her by Anaïs’ ancestors, that of the house itself and Anaïs’ present life, become inextricably entangled. Quinn never lets go of the reins of disbelief with which she relates her tale, ending it with two great shocks. The message which she appears anxious to impress upon the reader is that while time does not stand still, the past will not remain silent if it has secrets to share.
The Dust Never Settles bears similarities with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s acclaimed novel, One Hundred Years Of Solitude (1967), which was first published in English in 1970. Both novels are rich in symbolism and metaphors and are preoccupied with the ghosts of the past and their influence on the present. Both texts deal with family and change affected by the course of history. But, as both novels demonstrate, some things don’t alter. Every generation perpetuates the hopes and dreams of the previous one. That is human nature.
Any Cop?: Described by critics as magic realism and by the author herself as “a love letter to Peru”, The Dust Never Settles may fascinate some and frustrate others. Whether or not one likes Quinn’s writing style, this début novel is a remarkable achievement in the breadth of themes it covers and the range of Peru’s history she explores.