Book: The Disappearance Of Irene dos Santos
author: Margaret Mascarenhas
Let’s start with the positives. The book has a striking cover picture — of a young woman in red shoes disappearing into what looks like a dense forest; the vivid neon of her shoes catches and holds the eye. The title is intriguing. The story is set in Venezuela. The reader, fed on a regulation diet of Latin American magical mysteries from the adroit pens of literary eminences like Marquez and Allende, will naturally expect lush prose in lush surrounds, a grand meld of passion, politics, magic and tragedy.
Well, it’s all there. And yet, something vital seems missing.
This is a coming-of-age tale featuring intricate family ties, people with rich interior lives, a luxuriant landscape as the backdrop, and with the mandatory thin thread of magic running through the story. Mestizos, gypsies, Indians, whites, young girls on the verge of womanhood, exotic animals and saints, and venal politicos, they’re all here. There’s a Maria Lionza/Simon Bolivar cult which combines love for a mythical goddess with the idealism of a favourite revolutionary; a country seemingly forever locked in rebellion; and a mysterious drowning that took place years and years ago but still haunts all the characters.
This woman-centric book by Margaret Mascarenhas, a Goan NRI who grew up in Venezuela but now lives in Goa, seems to have been written with an excessively inward gaze, and this restrains the flow of the story somewhat. The denouement… of sorts… takes its own time coming, and by then, only the committed reader is still turning the pages. The measured pace feels positively laggard at times.
The narrative threads are, unfortunately, too loose. The peg — the disappearance of the young girl Irene dos Santos — sometimes strides boldly to centre-stage, and at other times, it tends to step back into near-total obscurity. And it can’t be good when the reader loses sight of the peg. The revolution, too, is handled in a skirting, elusive fashion, perhaps deliberately. “Our resistance is like the wild passion fruit vine of the forest,” intones one of the characters. This kind of impassioned prose can work wonders. Or not. Here, it becomes a tad too precious.
Elsewhere, however, there is a delicious passage on the allure women hold for a major character. Sample this: “Every woman had something alluring and irresistible that caught at his belly like the claw of a jaguar. With this one, it was the sharp angle of her shoulder blades that moved him to tears. With that one, it was the curve of calf descending into the fine art of an ankle that made him ache with yearning. With another one, it was the composition of the foot with delicate arches and toes like ten delicious shrimp that took his breath away. The swells and curves that rose and fell along the terrain of a woman’s topography made him want to take up sculpting.”
The Disappearance Of Irene dos Santos is a complex tale. The question, though, is whether the tale is every reader’s flavour. It would, however, make for ideal Ladies Book Club discussion material.