Rating: 3 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Olympic Challenge
A woman trapped in a house in Mexico City is obsessed with Gilberto Owen in an apartment in Harlem with a dead orange tree. Gilberto Owen in an apartment in Harlem with a dead orange tree is obsessed with Emily Dickinson who is a woman trapped in a house. Both the woman and Gilberto see ghosts. Both Gilberto and the woman are ghosts. Both have died many times and go on dying and seeing each other across time.
This is a sigh of a book. It made me woozy with its strangeness. It starts out awkward. The narrator is trying to find her rhythm. She writes in snatches, in stolen moments when she doesn’t have to be a wife or a mother. She sits alone, in the night, smoking and remembering, looking back at the life she had working in a publishing house before she married, before she had children.
The sense of late night solitude comes through very well. The writing murmurs softly.
A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.
I could picture her, nostalgic for her past, accepting of but unconvinced by her present.
She wanders the streets, buildings and bars of her Harlem twenties. I recognised places vaguely from when I visited a friend who lived north of Harlem along St Nicholas Avenue in Hamilton Heights.
The book is full of ghosts. Ghosts of dead Mexican poets, American poets, the narrator’s own ghosts. Plural because she feels she has died many times.
Ezra Pound sees his dead friend among the crowd of people on a subway train and writes a poem, paring it down to two lines as brief as the glimpse he had of his dead friend.
The narrator’s younger self is a petty kleptomaniac, rootless and seeking temporary recognition in a series of casual relationships, sleeping in other people’s apartments in order to escape her solitude.
Her husband sneaks peeks at her writing. Perhaps she wants him to. Perhaps she wants him to know about her other self, the person she was before she met him, the person who didn’t have to give a piece of herself away with every interaction.
Her younger self is obsessed with a dead Mexican poet called Gilberto Owen.
She uncovers or imagines an infidelity. She hides the true book she’s writing. She lays a trail to confuse her husband. But it might not be her real husband she confuses. She mixes her own life in with an imagined life of Gilberto Owen, riding parallel trains on the New York subway. She projects fragmented facts from his life onto her own, real or imagined, life. Nothing is clear. The truth is mostly obscured, with the exception of her unhappiness. She has a history of lying. She tells her husband that what she writes is a lie. What we are reading could be a lie, a trick. He leaves, but he doesn’t leave.
How can we rely on someone who tells us she’s a liar? She calls her novel a horizontal novel told vertically but it’s a spaghetti novel with multiple alternatives. And then it flips, and Gilberto Owen is the narrator writing a novel about the woman. He writes a vertical novel told horizontally. He moves among Spanish poets, Mexican poets, American poets, Mexican dancers. He loses his family. He loses his sight. He loses himself.
An earthquake comes. A man is found. A book ends.
I enjoyed the experience of reading this book. I liked the layering and the sense that time is fluid and existence overlaps. I have no idea what Valeria Luiselli intended it to be about, but what I take from it is isolation, incompleteness and invisibility. The way you can be in a room full of people who think you are one person but can’t see the person you know yourself to be. The way the person they see is the person you become and your true self is trapped in a house somewhere, waiting for a seismic shift.