A young man strains to understand the source of his parents’ split as well as an uncle’s suspicious death.
The unnamed narrator of Zúñiga’s spare English debut is 20 years old and on a road trip with his father through Chile’s Atacama Desert, spending time with that side of the family before getting some dental work done. (The narrator has bleeding-gum issues after spending his adolescence subsisting entirely on junk food, it seems.) This simple plot has plenty of storm clouds: as the first page explains, he believes his father killed his uncle Neno years before, though the novel is less an investigation than a meditation on this act. The novel’s structure highlights the narrator’s split existence: one to two paragraphs per page, with each page alternating between the young man’s travels with dad and his childhood with mom. The latter experience, in his telling, was dour bordering on oppressive: he recalls being an aspiring journalist as his mother sparingly reveals details about Neno; the narrator’s dead brother; and her split from his father. Dad, meanwhile, is upbeat, with a new wife and son, though he keeps his distance from his own father, a devout Jehovah’s Witness. A camanchaca is a fog unique to Chile in parts where the desert abuts the coast, a fitting metaphor for the deliberate fuzziness of memory and emotion that Zúñiga cultivates. “[Dad] explains that one must respect the desert and the highway, that not just anyone can drive there,” he writes, which is a bit of bluster but also underscores the point that navigating those memories won’t be easy. The book’s brevity and mannered structure dampen its emotional impact; it will be interesting to see what Zúñiga can do with a broader canvas. But he’s thoughtfully commanded three complex lives in a limited space.
A smart, straightforward narrative that reveals the varied mood a shared experience can evoke.