The Angolan writer’s fifth novel to receive an English translation, a look at the upheaval caused by the Angolan civil war, places a recluse at its heart.
Who is this solitary young woman on the top floor of a luxury building in Luanda, Angola’s capital, and why has she walled off her apartment? Her name is Ludo. She has been brought here unwillingly from Portugal by her sister, Odete, and brother-in-law, Orlando, an Angolan engineer for a diamond company, only to have the couple vanish into thin air, leaving behind a cache of diamonds. A burglar comes looking for the stones. Fragile but resourceful, Ludo shoots him dead, buries him in a terrace flowerbed and throws up the wall, prompted by her agoraphobia and a traumatic experience in late childhood; below, the crowds are celebrating the ex-colony’s 1975 independence, which will lead to the civil war. Ludo will live alone for 30-plus years, finally accepting Angola as her home and not the land of black savages she had long thought. Her brooding presence is inescapable, though she’s not the linchpin Agualusa evidently intended; there are many other characters whose stories crisscross as war and politics shape their lives. Keep your eye on Little Chief. He’s an altruistic political activist and an ex-con. Down on his luck, he shoots a pigeon, the same pigeon that had earlier swallowed some diamonds on Ludo’s terrace. Those diamonds and shrewd investments will make him a rich man and Ludo’s neighbor. Reversals of fortune are the novel’s lifeblood, along with strange disappearances and delayed revelations. A whole village disappears (witchcraft at work?); Odete and Orlando’s disappearance is only explained at the end.
Too many mysteries pile up to sustain suspense, but the novel is redeemed by its bright shimmer of magic realism.