Thursday, 25 October 2018

Book review: So Much Blue, Percival Everett (2017)

This wistful novel by a major African-American author contains three separate threads that are worked out in alternating chapters that are uniformly short and punchy. All are tied together by the theme of secrets, of lies that are spoken and that continue to influence a person’s life for decades.

One of the threads is about Kevin and his friend Richard and it takes place in 1979 when the two young men travel to El Salvador to find Richard’s brother Tad and bring him back home. Tad has been out of contact and his family had started to worry about him. In the nation’s capital, they meet a man they are introduced to as the Bummer who is a kind of fixer and he takes them out into the countryside in search of the lost brother. The country is on the verge of civil war and the streets are full of soldiers. They meet a man named Carlos who is from the Netherlands and who makes a living helping the relatives of the dead to identify their loved ones. Kevin, who is African-American, develops an intense dislike for him that is not explained. The story unfolds at a fast pace and the cuts are dramatic, giving you an intense desire to rush forward to find out what happens.

The second strand of the novel concerns a time later in Kevin’s life when he is travelling in Paris for the purpose of opening an art show at a commercial gallery in the city. There, he meets a young woman named Victoire and has an affair while his wife and his children, who are small and reliant on their parents, are back in Rhode Island in the family home. Kevin falls in love with Victoire in a way that he sees is different from the way he feels about his wife, Linda. One night when he is with Victoire, Linda calls the hotel hoping to speak with Kevin and he misses the call. Again, you are always on the edge of your seat reading the chapters that contribute to this strand of the novel because you want to find out what happens in the end.

The third strand of the novel concerns an episode that takes place later, once Kevin’s children April and Will are older. April is 16 now and she tells her father that she’s pregnant but she gets him to promise not to tell her mother. As with the other strands of the novel, there is always something unknown about the drama that keeps you turning the pages impatiently.

For most of the time reading this book I was anxious to know more but when Kevin decides to go back to El Salvador 30 years after the events that had been recounted in the first strand of the novel, things fray a little at the edges. The dramatic force of events that take place in this segment of the book is not as punchy as it had been earlier in the narrative, and you wonder if the poetic logic that underpins them is as solid as the author hopes it is. I felt a little let down in this part of the book and found that things seemed a little too neat in their unfolding, especially when he revisits a town that he had first gone to in 1979, and there meets the father of a girl who he had earlier seen killed in a road. He visits the girl’s grave. The woman he meets who does the translations seemed to me to be a little too convenient a character given the circumstances of this trip undertaken to bury old ghosts. The novel’s finale is apposite however and in general I thought the book was executed well and had a competently-formed artistic vision.

In my mind the character of Kevin however always remained a bit thin. The emotional core is not strong in this man, a painter, who has had to come to terms with trauma and make a meaningful life in its wake. I wondered while reading the novel if this impression had to do with the fact that Everett is black and that it might be difficult to communicate ideas and feelings across racial boundaries, but other things left me feeling that this author has problems making credible characters. In Toni Morrison’s novels you don’t find this kind of absence at the centre of the main characters. In Everett’s book, Victoire is also oddly absent in the end and therefore the impact she has on the reader is weakened. I felt that the potential for either fulfillment or menace that she might have embodied was ultimately left unrealised. Despite the anticipation of drama you feel when you read this book, and despite the eagerness with which you turn its pages, its emotional aftereffect is disconcertingly pale at first but, given enough time to reflect on it, I had a physical reaction to the final scene. Everett is a talented writer.

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