A woman sits at her regular table in a café and has noticed for many mornings a couple at their regular table. She has become fascinated by them; her day isn’t complete, or even ruined, if, because of work or some other reason, she has to miss her morning coffee and doesn’t get her daily dose of them. The husband is suddenly and brutally killed, murdered unnecessarily, possibly even mistakenly, and the woman goes up to the wife and offers her condolences and is invited into the life of the widow.
I’m not given anything away by telling you that: this all happens just before the novel begins.
This is the starting point, the seed, that allows Marías to write many conversations, some even imaginary; to explore the subject of death, or more specifically, the effects of death on those who remain.
Now, don’t get scared but I’m going to use a word that scares most readers: philosophical. It’s like a philosophical exploration of the effects of death on people, but the use of dialogue between characters, instead of long passages of prose, makes the ideas, the philosophy, so accessible. We’ve all thought about it (Haven’t you?). In conversations, as short sometimes as Marías’s, I’ve often used the sentence, ‘We cease to exist after we die in exactly the same way as we don’t exist before we are born’. This is the very subject of one of the conversations in the novel and one of the reasons I found the book so interesting, particularly because one of the characters refutes that statement. Another reason is that the writer is a man but the first person narrator is a woman. This is unusual. If the protagonist and author are of different genders the author usually chooses to use the third person.
(But there is also mystery. I started writing this blog when I was a third of the way through – I often start my blog well before I’ve finished the book, even finishing the blog-writing before I finish the novel-reading – when I had a sneaking suspicion that the circumstances surrounding the murder may not be true. I haven’t worked out how Marías triggered this thought, if it’s a red herring, or novelistic supposition. I shall see.)
Curiously, and comically, Marías gives the protagonist, the lonely woman in the cafe, Maria Dolz, a job at a publishing house. She has a very low opinion of writers; they continuously annoy, frustrate, and make unwanted demands on her. She is a passive woman, and knows it, but seems to enjoy subverting her writer’s wishes and gaining the upper hand if only to prove to herself that she isn’t as passive as she believes herself to be.
And now that she has been introduced into the life of the sudden widow, Luisa Desverne, and met her friends, she falls hopelessly in love with one of them, Javier Diaz-Varela, the one that she imagines would’ve been chosen by the murdered husband to console, care for, and eventually marry his wife had he had forewarning of his own demise; believing that Diaz-Varela is indeed biding his time with her, toying with her, waiting for Luisa to notice and accept him. Maria has a vivid and self-deprecating imagination.
‘If anything bad were to happen to me and I was no longer here,’ Desverne might have said one day, ‘I’m counting on you to take care of Luisa and the kids.’
‘What do you mean? What are you talking about? Why do you say that? You’re not ill are you?’ Diaz-Varela would have replied, anxious and taken aback.
(Ah, yes, a mystery!)
Marías is continually praised for his sentences, and his sentences are indeed dense, elegant, and rewarding; even very long, but don’t be fooled by a page long sentence; it’s usually a page of many sentences but only one full stop.
When someone is in love, or, more precisely, when a woman is in love and in the early stages of an affair, when it still has all the allure of the new and surprising, she is usually capable of taking an interest in anything that the object of her love is interested in or speaks about. She’s not just pretending as a way of pleasing him or winning him over or establishing a fragile stronghold, although there is an element of that, she really does pay attention and allow herself to be generally caught up in what he feels and transmits, be in enthusiasm, aversion, sympathy, fear, anxiety, or even obsession.
The book slowly takes on the form of a murder novel, but not one that could easily be turned into a movie as it all happens in the mind of Maria. She imagines a lot of things, conversations, desires, intentions, but does she imagine everything?
(I’m two thirds of the way through now … )
There is certainly a taste of fear for Maria’s well being, and a growing sense of excitement that borders on compulsive page-turning. I found myself reading the first paragraph of a new (short, un-numbered, un-titled) chapter to get the sense of the continuing story, but then find myself at the next chapter. There is also a recurring image of the dead returning which is always accompanied with a feeling of dread, even though the deceased has been greatly mourned.
… surely not!
You can buy the paperback, ebook, audio book, and/or read a free sample here.
Listen to Marías reading from one of his novels and talking about writing here.