A kidnapping forces a husband to reconsider his life in Sylvester’s debut, a cross between a literary novel and a thriller.
Although Andres and Marabela Jimenez live in a house that’s “enclosed by cement walls and locked gates,” horror manages to invade their lives when Marabela is kidnapped and ransomed at a price too steep for her husband, owner of a printing company, to afford. For help, he brings in a kidnapping expert named Guillermo, who recently negotiated the ransom for Elena, Andres’ childhood sweetheart. But Elena was held captive for 37 days and returned home broken, unable to return to her old life; is this fate in store for Marabela, too? Sylvester sets her novel in Peru in 1992, against a backdrop of political violence and guerrilla warfare. The country’s public turmoil echoes the private turmoil of the Jimenezes, no example of marital bliss even before the kidnapping. One of the appealing aspects of the novel is that it isn’t really about the negotiations at all. Rather, it’s about Andres reconnecting with neglected aspects of his life: Elena, his family and even Marabela. He becomes hopeful about what might happen when his wife returns. Will they put their relationship back together? Sylvester’s novel is one of great promise, even if it doesn’t cohere. Two-thirds of the way through, it changes shape dramatically—a twist that wants to gesture toward larger concerns but makes the remainder of the novel feel like an overlong epilogue. Nevertheless, Sylvester is a fine writer with a knack for crafting situations that externalize the characters’ internal struggles. (For instance, Andres and Guillermo have to invade Marabela’s darkroom—her last bastion of privacy—to set up a headquarters to handle the negotiations.) Sometimes Sylvester’s language stretches too far, as when a dial tone “is empty, just like [Andres] is,” but her ambition to reach beyond the traditional kidnapping thriller into something richer is commendable.
A smart take on a familiar genre that, when it stumbles, stumbles admirably.