Again, Desai explores cultural fault lines as she describes a young American’s experiences in Mexico.
Strongly evoking a distant time and place—Mexico in the early 1900s—Desai (stories: Diamond Dust, 2000, etc.) introduces protagonist Eric, a historian who has lost faith in academics because he prefers detail to generalities. He’s been living with Em in Boston, where she pursues her medical studies with single-minded determination, and when Em announces she must visit Mexico to do research, Eric decides to go along too. Once there, Em has her own agenda, and when Eric, left on his own in Mexico City, by chance hears aging ethnographer Dona Vera talk about her work with Huichol Indians, he recognizes some of the places she mentions: they’re the places his Cornish grandfather described when he told young Eric about his experiences mining silver in Mexico, where Eric’s father was born in the midst of Pancho Villa and Zapata’s revolution. Eric, who like his father has never quite fit in—both men are imaginative and solitary—next travels to the remote region in the Sierra where silver was once mined, and, after one night at Dona Vera’s hacienda in the valley, takes a bus to the mountainside town. The former mining town is mostly abandoned, but with the Day of the Dead at hand, it fills up as visitors come to honor their dead. Between Eric’s arrival in the town and his search for his grandmother’s grave, Desai tells the story of how young Betty left Cornwall to marry Eric’s grandfather David, adjusted to life in a Mexican village, but died giving birth to Eric’s father. Eric, deeply affected, gives his vivid imagination free rein as a night in the cemetery becomes a transformative encounter with both the living and the dead.
Sensitive proof that understanding lies as much in the details as in the broad strokes.