Admittedly, I shuffled this volume amongst my stack of current reads for weeks before I started reading. (There is always a book in there that is trying on the idea of being a current read, rather than actually being read currently.)
The front cover immediately appealed (that image is mesmerizing, isn't it?). And I've been wanting to find time for one of Robert Hough's novels for years. Since 2001, to be exact, when his novel about the greatest female tiger trainer, Mabel Stark, caught my reader's eye.
But the back cover suggested that it was equal parts Mark Twain and Gabriel García Márquez. And I've only read a couple of works by each author, and admiring them isn't the same as loving them.
Strangely enough, now I understand the comparison, and it having been made about this novel has made me think more fondly about both Twain's and Márquez's works.
I hopped from one reader's foot to the next for some time, the indecision strengthened by the fact that it's over 400 pages long.
Finally I plucked it off the stack. (I don't know why: I carry that stack of books everywhere in the house, depending where I'm spending time, and eventually I get tired of the scenery and I have to finish reading books to alter the view.)
Here is what I read: "Francisco Ramirez stood fretting before an antique full-length mirror framed in strips of shellacked mesquite."
(I wasn't hooked yet. I wish that I could say that I was, but it took a little longer.)
"It was a fine piece of craftsmanship, hand-built and intricate with detail; if you looked closely, you could see deer heads carved into the frame, each one gazing bemusedly in a different direction."
Looking back, I think it began here, with those carved deer heads, gazing bemusedly -- yes, bemusedly -- but I don't think I recognized it at the time.
(Periodically. there is a word in Robert Hough's prose which stands out for me, like bemusedly. To the point where I wonder if it's not pretentious to have chosen a 5$-word when a penny-word would have done the trick. But then I think about it, and it's the perfect word: perfect for the whole story, not just the sentence or the paragraph. They are quite ordinary words, but not the sort that you see in novels everyday, which makes them seem extraordinary. I imagine there is a Dr. Brinkley's Tower lexicon somewhere, and that idea thrills me, that someone could have spent that much time imagining a world and its inhabitants. Well, isn't that why we read? To find that kind of world?)
But I wasn't actually hooked yet (I settled into the story wholly on page 22: I'm a sucker for an old-fashioned romance), and it wasn't instantaneous, more like a steady cinching of interest, so each sentence must have been subtly reeling me in.
The sentences are carefully crafted, although they seem effortless. Take the first sentences from each paragraph on the first few pages:
"It was 1931, the long, bloody years of the revolution still a fresh wound."
"The mirror's real dissolution had occurred during the revolution, when government soldiers were continually requisitioning goods for the war effort, only to spend the proceeds in houses of ill repute."
"Given these shortcomings, the mirror had been relegated to the bedroom used by Francisco, who was now assessing himself in the turbulent, hypercritical way of all adolescents."
"The problem, as he saw it, was his nose."
"The accident had rendered the bridge of his nose somewhat lumpy in appearance, not unlike the backbone of a spiny armadillo."
They read almost like their own story, even though you're missing all the rest of the sentences that come between.
(You can, however, read a sample chapter on the publisher's site, if you're curious, and I hope you are. Though I've included these for flavour, illustrating the way in which the author deals with historical context, the inclusion of houses of ill repute -- lest you be sensitive to such realities, the variation in sentence length and tone, and the occasional figurative image.)
In between are the sentences that build the story, the ones that are -- even if you're unaware -- pulling you into the tale of Francisco and Roberto and Violeta and Madam Félix -- and the Reyes brothers and the Marias and Miguel and Antonio and Carlos and and and -- in this 1930s Mexican frontier town.
The connection to the narrative builds slowly; there is a wide cast of characters, and they are introduced steadily, building an understanding of Corazón de la Fuente across the chapters.
(And there is a lot of detail in the prose, a lot that you could imagine another writer putting into parentheses, or editing out entirely, so if you're bored with the style of this post, you might find your attention wandering in the novel as well. Dr. Brinkley's Tower really isn't a novel written for those who like to read the text boxes instead of the text, for those who read in one-minute chunks.)
Sometimes the characters feel familiar, as though perhaps you've caught a glimpse of them on-screen or on other pages. Sometimes you suspect what's going to happen, as though you've heard this story before.
Well, it has all been told before, right?
Love and grief, friendship and betrayal, progress and devastation.
(And, when I thought about it, it wasn't so much that I knew what was going to happen, but just that I hoped it so hard, because I really did want things to turn out well for these characters. Remember, I was hooked.)
Ultimately, however, there is a hook, a catch. And readers of Robert Hough's earlier works might well have suspected this, for his last novel, The Culprits opens with a warning:
"Life is a deception. Oh yes -- it's a ruse, it's a scam, it's a carnival shell game."
(I don't mean a twist, not like an O'Henry story, or a big reveal. More like when you thought something was true the whole time, but then you realize that you shouldn't have assumed, or like when you thought something wasn't true, because it seemed too fantastical, but then you discover it was real.)
It's a big question: what do we trust? While we're figuring it out, we can trust in good storytelling.
(Robert Hough's backlist was added to my TBR list before I reached page 22.)
[This was originally posted here, on Buried In Print.)