Dying in the City of Flowers
It’s hard to know where to begin when discussing this book. On the one hand, it tells an interesting if tragic tale, made more immediate by the fact that it’s based on a true story, and told by the person who lived it. On the other hand, it’s a garbled narrative with ambitions toward the lyrical, visual styles of contemporary Latin American authors which occasionally achieves its goal, but just as often falls short, and ends up feeling slightly pretentious as a result.
It’s the story of Viola, an American sixteen-year-old who marries the Peruvian man who knocked her up. Her husband, whom she refers to first as El Rey (The King), then as Blue Robe, and later on as The Shadow, refuses to work, and takes her home to Peru with him, only to abandon her there among in-laws who dislike her intensely. She finds work and eventually saves enough to return home with her son P.J., only to find herself living in squalor once again. Her attempts to start life anew are foiled by her husband, whom she has not yet managed to divorce entirely. Worming his way back through custody negotiations, he tries to talk Viola into coming back to him, but upon failing that, he kidnaps four-year-old P.J. and returns to Peru. When Viola tries to follow, she is threatened by his connections in the corrupt Peruvian government, and is given a choice. She can leave Peru within 24 hours, or she can disappear. In a country where such disappearances are far from uncommon, Viola knows she has little choice. She leaves Peru, but swears to herself that she will return and claim her son.
While the story is certainly compelling, the way it’s told is often roundabout, with flashbacks scattered randomly throughout, often bumping into each other, so that it often takes the reader several sentences or paragraphs (and occasionally even pages) to ascertain where in time the action is taking place. In addition to this problem, what the narrator says is often unreliable, in the sense that many of her perceptions appear to be either metaphoric or hallucinogenic, and it’s frequently not clear what exactly we’re supposed to trust.
The narrator herself is an interesting character, although not an inviting one. Having apparently lived her entire life in a series of tragedies that vary in intensity from minor to extremely intense, and having also apparently never had a normal or healthy relationship in her life, there’s a certain distance to her, a difficulty in relating to her entirely. We are provided with a multitude of bizarre and painful descriptions of her family, of whom only her father is addressed in a normal fashion, as Dad. Her mother she refers to as Irish (despite not being Irish), while her siblings are The Rose, Palomino, Governor and Junior (not their real names). Then there are her grandparents, Silver Grandpa and Tall Grandma, and Copper Grandpa and Grandma Sugar. And there’s also her aunt, Wild Aunt, who makes some very strange (and apparently untrue) statements, such as claiming to be Viola’s biological mother (she’s not; Viola is the reason her parents got married in the first place). We are treated to a series of strange and disturbing (and confusing, even contradictory) tales of life in this exceptionally dysfunctional and not necessarily loving family.
What we don’t get is much info about her husband. Oh, we learn what a bad, mean, horrible, nasty man he is (and he is), and how bad, mean, horrible and nasty his family is (and for the most part, they are). But we never get his real name, and most confusingly, never get any clue as to why she slept with and married him in the first place, since he is bad, mean, horrible and nasty, from start to finish. A smidgeon of humanity, happiness, or interruption to the relentless tragedy that Viola lives would have gone a long way to making her seem more like a person than a target for Bad Things.
Not surprisingly, given her family life both before and after her husband, Viola has a great number of issues, one of which, as you may have guessed, dealing with identity. Not only does her husband change names (such as they are) twice during the course of the story, but Viola later becomes, at least in part, a character named Aurelia, apparently because El Rey has an irrational hatred (one of many) for anyone named Aurelio. She also takes on the stage name Nicole, during her stint as a stripper (yes, you read that right). Whether intentionally or not, these many factors add up to a narrator whose reliability is suspect – whose very grip on reality is often suspect.
In fact, the surreal quality (an attempt at Magical Realism, perhaps?) that the narration both revels and wallows in, the unreliability of the narrator herself, and the unrelentingly tragic tone of the novel all make for a book that tells an interesting story, but not in a particularly satisfying way. I wanted to like this character, wanted to feel for her, but in the end, it was exceedingly difficult to even decipher her, let alone identify with her.
I can’t truly recommend this book as a result. The story is intense and worth reading, but because of the problems with the narrator, any triumphant feelings the reader may gain by the end of Dying in the City of Flowers must compete with some uncomfortable, dissatisfying ones. I leave it up to you to to decide whether you’d like to take Viola’s journey for yourself.