The Zigzag Way Paperback – 7 Apr 2005
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'She is one of the best English language novelists of modern times' -- Daily Telegraph
Haunting, luminous novel, with a magical, elegiac beauty, set in Mexico, by the Booker Prize shortlisted author of Fasting, Feasting. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product description
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Sadly, this reflects the book that is divided into four storylines. The first, ‘Eric Arrives’ introduces the reader to Eric and his medical scientist girlfriend, Em[ily], in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they live together, and subsequently in Mexico where Em will be working on a field study in Yucutan. To pass the time in Mexico City, Eric attends a talk on the role of peyote in the culture of the Huichol Indians which stimulates him to find out more.
The second part, ‘Vera Stays’ describes the life of Vera, a Viennese chorus girl with Nazi associations, who marries a Mexican whose family fortune was based on silver mining in the Sierra Madre region. There she becomes transformed into Doña Vera the "Queen of the Sierra", a self-appointed protector of the Huichol Indians and the speaker Eric heard in Mexico City. Now an old lady, she meets Eric at her remote home/study centre but resents his telling her that he is now looking for information about his grandfather, a Cornish miner who had worked in the region. His new and rather vague idea is to use this in a proposed book. However, Doña Vera blames the mine owners for exploiting the Indians’ lives and almost destroying their culture.
In Part three, ‘Betty Departs’, we follow the difficult life of Eric’s grandfather, Davey, and Betty Jennings, a tenacious young woman who travelled to Mexico in 1910 to marry him, and even catch sight of the revolutionary, Pancho Villa, sitting on top of a train, whilst in the short final part. ‘La Noche de los Muertes’, Desai ties these disparate stories together but, surprisingly for such an assured storyteller, is unable to create a unity between the earlier three stories.
Desai is an evocative writer and she paints colourful portraits of the past and present Mexico, the working silver mines in the Sierra Madre and the contemporary ghost towns with the nearby mines that were abandoned during the Mexican Revolution. The writer’s descriptions benefit from her immersion in the country, its diverse peoples and their customs - not least the celebrations surrounding the spirits of the dead returning for a single night to be with their loved ones.
‘The Zigzag Way’ is taken from from a book from Doña Vera’ library in which Eric reads that Indian porters, bent double by enormous loads, climbed from the mines in a zigzag manner to allow them to take maximum benefit of the current of air from above. But it also describes the dismal Eric’s meandering in search of his roots.
Doña Vera is clearly committed to promoting Huichol culture but finds it difficult to relate to human beings and humanity. She accepts local Indians but on her terms and ‘never speaks to them, only of them’. She has secrets and her past is full of pain and disappointment. She also has a very annoying way of speaking that reinforces her almost cartoon-like character and Desai uses her to convey rather indigestible information about the Huichols.
The author integrates elements of Cornish, Catholic, Irish and Mexican life and history, but this is at the expense of the characters who, with the exception of Betty, remain frustratingly incomplete. The final part introduces elements of Magic Realism that does not sit too well with the rather earthy descriptions of the overnight celebrations. Much better handled are the wraith-like memories and half-remembered conversations that Eric dredges from his childhood and which are gradually explained in the course of the book.
As in any book by Desai there is a great deal of memorable writing. However, on this occasion, it fails to come together into a coherent whole.
This has so much promise as the story goes exploring the history of silver mining and the characters involved as well as the possibilities of developing Eric’s own story, his relationship with his girl friend, Em and those people he encounters along the way.
Sadly I was struggling from page one as I hate it when authors write in unnecessarily complicated and convoluted ways. This is the sentence that nearly had me putting the book down very early on.
“Since the inn was directly across the square from where the bus had stopped, he could not have missed it even in the dusk. The wind that had scraped and scoured the hills around till the stones gleamed white now struck the tin signboard against the wall of the inn with the sound of a bell striking the hours, drawing his attention to it.”
It might be beautifully poetic but I had to read it twice as I had lost interest by the time I was half way through and it is just a needlessly complicated a description adding nothing to the story for me.
The characters just never really became real. Em may as well not have existed as there are few scant references to her as Eric thinks about what she might have said had she been there but really not adding anything to the story for me.
Dona Vera who had the potential to become a really interesting and rather odd character fizzled out into nothing just as I was starting to become mildly interested in her story and background. She escaped from Nazi Germany just as things were starting to become difficult but we never find out if she was connected to the Nazis or why she was so keen to marry the rich Mexican who was so much older than her or why she then more or less left him to live in the family hacienda and spends her time riding in the hills. Why did she become interested in the local Indians and what was her relationship with the young india in a photo she looks at? These things are all hinted at but never develop into anything.
The best part of the book was Eric grandparent’s story and how they lived in small huts and the lifestyle they had. This was just beginning to become interesting and develop into something with a bit more meat to it when once again the story shifts to the next generation and Eric’s arrival. Although this did put his background into context it was all just too skimmed over for me.
We then jump to the Dia de los Muertos, the feast day when the local people remember their dead and celebrate with them by bringing them gifts. This is the part where Eric attends not really sure why he is attending. He talks to some rather odd people as he goes on his way. I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to people who were alive or people from the past. I won’t spoil this in case you want to read the book yourself but this was all very weird and rather confusing for me.
This part was described on the back as where;
“.....the various strands of the novel come together hauntingly, bringing together past and present in a moment of quiet, powerful epiphany. “
Sorry but I missed that. The threads of the novel do come together as described but in a rather obvious way in my view and it is far from being a ‘powerful epiphany’, strange and rather weird is more like my interpretation. And ‘Why bother?’ springs to my mind.
I couldn’t decide if it was meant to be a young adult book or aimed at adults. It was shallow enough to be a short story or young adult book but the way it is written seems to me to be more aimed at adults. In my very humble opinion she would have been better to have concentrated on developing the characters and filling in some more eventful happenings in the story rather than concentrating on the waffly descriptions.
How interesting and exciting could a story have been with the setting described on the back;
...he is overwhelmed with sensory overload, but gradually seduced – by the strangeness, the colour, the mysteries of an older world. He finds himself ona curious quest for his own family in a ‘ghost’ mining town, now barely inhabited, where almost a hundred years earlier young Cornish miners worked the rich seams in the earth.”
Now give that shell of a story to any number of modern authors such as James Mitchener, Wilbur Smith and many others and you would get a rollicking good yarn from that with interweaving stories from various characters. Instead we have a rather one dimensional affair that left me wondering why she had bothered and wishing I hadn’t bothered reading it really was rather a simple short story.
Having read this I feel no inclination at all to seek out any more of this author’s books. She was apparently short listed for a Booker prize for another novel ‘Fasting, Feasting’ but I know nothing of that book. She has written several other books but none that I have read or will be reading I feel.
After finishing this book I was confused. It seems like the story had only just begun. I was expecting to learn more about Eric and his choices, and particularly why he was reaching out to the past, but the author did not elaborate. Also, no explanation was given for Dona Vera's behaviour, there are only some references to ghosts from the past, but it all goes by so quickly, that it's almost as if the author got fed up with writing the book and decided to cut it short, a point one of my fellow reviewers also made.
I could not identify with any of the characters, because I don't feel I was given the opportunity in so short a novel. Also, I found the prose unnecessarily complex and lyrical.
I think this could have a been a great novel if the author had put more life into it. Unfortunately, it reads like a skeleton of a book, a framework that needs to be reworked and expanded.
The writing was predictable, the characters one dimensional and 'formulaic', the use of the Mexican setting and 'day of the dead' did nothing for the storyline and did not do the vibrant country and culture justice.
I may give other books of Desai's a go, but this one was not very good sadly.
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