What seems little more than inchoate allegory gradually mutates into intriguing parable in this teasingly unconventional second novel from the California author of The Piano Tuner (2002).
Fourteen-year-old Isabel is on a search for her older brother Isaias, who left their drought-ridden village (“one day,” we’re informed, to be “name[d] Saint Michael in the Cane”) to live in “the Settlements” outside a thriving city imperiled by an ongoing war. Generic topographical and ethnic detail suggest a South American or (more likely) Southeast Asian setting, but the real point is the universality of the siblings’ experiences. Isaias, only a remembered presence throughout much of the narrative, is energetic and hopeful, a promising musician seeking a remunerative professional career. The more passive Isabel steels herself to follow him, moving to the settlement of New Eden, where she lives with her cousin Manuela and cares for the latter’s baby. The novel’s content is so unspecific and constrained that very little seems to happen in Isabel’s new life. Still, Mason patiently builds a horrific picture of poverty, violent crime and ongoing exploitation; a nightmare from which Isabel finds only sporadic relief (in her part-time job as a political-campaign worker, and a near-romance with a gentle itinerant “portrait seller”), plunging repeatedly into consecutive disappointments (at a hospital mental ward where she’s relieved not to find Isaias, and a frustrating visit to the Department of Disappeared Persons). Mason keeps the reader off guard and guessing, and it doesn’t always work: There are stretches during which the novel feels tentative and forced. But there’s a terrific payoff—a riveting climactic scene in which Isabel believes she sees Isaias in the street, and follows him to “the source,” which will direct countless others onto the path the two of them have traveled.
Imperfectly realized and disturbingly enigmatic, but quite fascinating.