The Sense of Darkness
In a rural Latin American village called Sabana, Trinidad Torralvo and her sister Ines grew up alongside a young man named Victor, who is kidnapped by guerrillas. Fast forward a few years through Ines’s love story (just a few pages at the hectic pace of this book), and Ines’s daughter Clara is born and grows up. Blind, Clara also possesses a preternatural sense of smell which enables her to concoct miraculous healing potions. When the guerrillas (including the now-grown Victor) shoot and wound Mauricio Jaramillo, a regional governor and valuable hostage, they bring him to Sabana and demand that Clara keep him alive. Influenced by magic realism and Latin American fiction, The Sense of Darkness is flawed but interesting.
The first thing I had to get over was the old “blindness leads to other sensory superpowers” cliche. Strangely enough, the more ludicrous Clara’s powers became (she can smell the emotions of someone who read a book by sniffing the pages,) the more I accepted them. I could interpret her sense of smell as a fantastical magic realism element rather than as anything connected to real life. I can, however, understand someone finding it offensive.
The book is bursting at the seams with characters and plot, hurtling through thirty or so years of character time in a scant 230 pages. Coming in expecting a central romance between Clara and Mauricio, I was bewildered by the fact that Clara isn’t even born until a third of the way through the book. I couldn’t help feeling like the author was wasting my time introducing characters who didn’t even live to see the birth. However, if you don’t enter with that expectation, it probably won’t matter so much. Yes, at times, the book feels like the Wikipedia plot summary of three decades on a Latin American soap opera, but on the whole, the characterizations are efficient and engaging.
To take just one example of the vivid characters, Trinidad prays to a cupboard full of “delinquent saints,” figures like Ismaelito, whom “they say killed more than forty people, but he always took care of his neighbours.” Clara’s brother counters that “The Saints don’t exist…. if we go more than fifteen days without shitting, we keel over, but if we go more than fifteen days without praying, nothing happens.” Clara calls him a pig, but “not without appreciating the logic of his reasoning.” Meanwhile, the devout Catholic neighbor directs Clara to worship “Jesus Christ, who was the first great saint, and also a communist.”
The quality of writing is all over the spectrum. There is vivid, original phrasing: Victor, walking away from Trinidad, feels “as if his skin were stuck to her body, and as he went farther, it was peeled away, layer by layer.” However, there’s also technical sloppiness. Commas are regularly omitted or thrown in for no reason. and at one point, a character “differs” about a course of action when the correct verb is “dithers.” In such a short and crowded work, precious word count is wasted on banal, overtagged dialogue (“‘Hi Don Rafael, here are your arepas and your black coffee,’ she answered without enthusiasm.”)
The romance is by far the weakest aspect of this book. This is not as limiting as it might seem because, as I’ve pointed out, it wasn’t intended to be a genre romance. Trinidad and Victor have a more compelling story, but not an HEA. As for Clara and Mauricio, I’ll give them points for originality – instead of love at first sight, we have love at first sniff, as Clara decides just from whiffing the unconscious Mauricio that he is the man for her. If you read this as fiction, it might not bother you, but I was reading it as a romance, and it was just silly. This book was originally written in Spanish, and I wonder if words like “smell” and “smelling” sound less goofy in Spanish than they do in English. I just couldn’t deal with a scene like this between Clara and Mauricio:
“How do you know I was looking at you?” “…You were smelling funny, you were smelling like you were looking at me…” “And what do I smell like now?” Mauricio asked when she was closer to his bed… “[I]s it a good smell or a bad smell?”
Its score as a romance would be a low C. Grading it on its own terms, as general fiction, I decided to raise that score, mostly on the strength of the setting. If you like family sagas and literary-influenced writing in an interesting setting, this book may be just right for you, even though it wasn’t quite my cup of tea.