Top positive review
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"All this time what I've been recording is the end of desire."
on June 28, 2009
In Ana Menendez's beautifully and elegantly written novel, the wars that "Flash" and her husband Brando (aka "Wonderboy") have covered become the backdrop to a domestic war dividing them in spirit even more than they are becoming divided in fact and in experience. Brando heads off to Iraq to cover yet another war and the early stages of the insurgency, chronicling the growing violence for the newspaper for which he writes. Flash, a photographer, remains in their new apartment in Istanbul, doing isolated freelance assignments (such as photographing Ottoman tombs) but mostly wandering the city and wondering what has happened to her life. "We were the war junkies: Eros and Chaos, endlessly drawn to the ragged margins where other people hated and died. It was as if we believed constant movement would deliver us finally from the disappointments of an ordinary life." War, she realizes, has been the bond between her and `Wonderboy'. "In Sri Lanka, we lay beneath mosquito netting for the first time and listened to bombs falling in the distance. When I slipped out of bed to shoot from the window, he yelled: It's dangerous! In Kargil, the crashing was a little closer, the road that took us there more perilous. At night, the hotel windows rattled from the concussions. In Kashmir, for the first time, he said the sound of shelling just over the hills sounded beautiful, like summer."
But now Flash feels everything is slipping out of control. The technical demands of her profession have changed; she must adapt to new digital camera technologies. That's the easy part, however. She's increasingly wondering whether wandering from one conflict to the next, chronicling death and disaster, is the life she wants to live or whether she is simply being towed along in Brando's wake. Is it making her too emotionally distant, as a friend claims? Then, one day a letter arrives for Flash in Istanbul, claiming that Wonderboy is having an affair with a woman in Iraq, a letter that causes a domestic cold war to flare even as the shooting war in Iraq heats up. An emotional distance builds between the couple, one that will have unexpected consequences for everyone.
The plot here isn't one that will satisfy a reader looking for dramatic events and larger-than-life characters. It's essentially a book revolving around Flash and her introspection, written in the first person. But for the most part it's nuanced and thoughtful, to the point where at times the reader begins to wonder, along with Flash, what is reality and what may be stress-induced hallucinations or delusions. There are a couple of bumpy spots that prevented me from awarding this startlingly-good novel a fifth star. Its final section feels rushed and abrupt, with the two major plot twists that feel a bit contrived. The other is some of the dialogue, particularly that of Flash's `friend', Alexandra. The ornate writing is appropriate for Flash's stream of consciousness, but less so for dialogue like this, when Alexandra confronts her with her shortcomings: "Take one Flash, average-looking woman, icy in her own way. Falls in love with dashing, gorgeous, remote Boy Wonder. He, a master of words; she, involved with the surface of things, with small frozen moments, disconnected story lines." Or, later, ""Life--a genuine life--is about fighting the dulling influence of adaptation." It's beautiful writing, but unconvincing and unnatural dialogue.
That said, this is still a gem of a novel, replete with some of the most beautiful language I've read in many months, as well as witty observations ("an American-style supermarket was just the thing to restore a sense of order and optimism"). It's a story of different kinds of domestic conflict and personal/internal conflict set against a larger and unseen violent war.
Recommended to readers who value powerful characters and language and who is looking for a novel jam-packed with ideas and images rather than dramatic action.