The notorious Irish courtesan who also inspired Anne Enright’s The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch presides regally over Tuck’s impressively researched, lushly written latest.
The episodic tale picks up (the historical) “Ella” Lynch’s story in 1854 in Paris, where she attracts the attention of Paraguayan prince regent Francisco Solano Lopez (“Franco”), who appropriates the statuesque beauty, and brings her home, to “transform Paraguay into a country exactly like France.” Tuck (stories: Limbo, and the Other Places I Have Lived, 2002; etc.) skillfully distributes dozens of narrative vignettes among these two impetuously matched lovers, their servants and miscellaneous acquaintances and correspondents, and numerous foreigners (“engineers, architects, physicians, all eager to make their fortunes in this rich new world”). Franco succeeds his tyrannical father Carlos as dictator, and spends his country’s resources lavishly, acquiring nearly as many mistresses as possessions, while Ella, continually pregnant, bears him five surviving sons. Tuck contrives numerous episodes that suggest the cruelty and violence underlying this emergent nation’s veneer of sophisticated self-indulgence—and particularly Franco’s ebullient masculine charm. And when diplomatic relations with neighboring republics are brusquely severed, Paraguay is drawn into a long, enervating war against a Triple Alliance comprising Brazil, Argentina, and “Banda Oriental” (later Uruguay). The story’s latter half is a swiftly paced chronicle of military defeats by vastly more numerous opposition forces, starvation, capture, torture, and execution. Prominent among the figures swept up by Franco’s self-destructive momentum are his cupiditous and treacherous siblings, an English stonemason hired to build his presidential palace, a scholarly “apothecary general”—and Ella’s beloved gray mare Mathilde. It all ends smashingly, with several views of Ella and her remaining sons, escaped to London and thence Paris, but not from the nightmarish history that has changed them forever.
A splendid realization of its rich subject, and Tuck’s best so far.