The lush exoticism and sinister supernaturalism of the culture of voudou are evoked in rapturous detail in this unusual novel, the fourth in English translation from the Cuban-born Puerto Rican author (The Last Night I Spent with You, 2000, etc.).
Unfortunately, it is also redundant and sluggishly paced, despite numerous dramatic foreshadowings of a confrontation between voudou priestess Zulé Revé, one of thousands of Haitians who’ve crossed borders to work on the Dominican Republic’s many sugar plantations, and her sworn enemy (and former lover) rival houngan (voudou priest) Similá Bolosse. Montero re-creates Zulé’s world with impressive (and obviously painstakingly researched) thoroughness (an appended glossary is really very helpful), layering in mythlike accounts of Zulé’s birth, her seven-year apprenticeship in a religion that blends her culture’s traditional beliefs with the principles of formal Christianity, marriage to her mentor, the houngan Papa Coridon, and her bizarre relationship with his (half-Chinese) voyeuristic son Jérémie Candé, who acts as Zulé’s “aide and bodyguard,” while passively adoring her. The story’s principal organizing device is the Gaga, a religious ritual that’s part carnival, part pilgrimage—which also dovetails into Zulé’s dangerous trek into the heartland where Similá and his murderous tonton macoutes (Haitian military police) hold sway, an Orphean journey undertaken to retrieve a wife lured away from her grieving husband. Haunting particulars effectively underscore the tale’s essential strangeness: enigmatic references to “the smoking phallus of death”; “a plague of rabid mongooses”; and the menacing figure of Baron Samedi, the traditional Haitian guardian of the souls of the dead. And Montero outdoes herself in conjuring up both the “shadow” and the reality of Similá Bolosse: equal parts man, bull, and devil; reputed to possess “three balls” and practice cannibalism; who prepares himself for battle by bathing in the blood of one hundred slaughtered goats. Alas, it’s all atmospherics; and the final showdown between Zulé and Similá is both sketchy and anticlimactic.
Overdecorated and underplotted. Not up to Montero’s usual standard.