BACKLANDS by Victoria Shorr


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Shorr's debut novel is a fictionalized rendering of the interior lives of real-life 20th-century Brazilian folk heroes Lampião and Maria Bonita as they meet, fall in love, and travel the countryside with their gang of outlaws.

Although he only began living outside the law in order to track down those responsible for the murder of his father, Lampião quickly becomes legendary for repeatedly escaping the authorities, engendering the loyalty of fellow outlaws and the awe of his countrymen. Sixteen-year-old Maria Bonita grows up hearing of his exploits but has no connection to Lampião when she's married to an elderly shoemaker by her father in an attempt to find her a steady source of food and housing in a severe drought. For six years, she sweeps the shoemaker's dirt floor and sleeps chastely in a hammock, more maid than wife. One day, Lampião's gang comes to the shoemaker's house with gun belts, sandals, bridles and other accessories that will take several days to mend. Lampião notices Maria's beauty, and Maria hears Lampião sing a song that says, "You teach me to make lace, and I'll teach you to make love." Her decision to leave the shoemaker and join Lampião for some lovemaking lessons is easy; but her decision to leave behind safety for perpetual uncertainty is much harder. Shorr writes with a dreamy, fatalistic lyricism: "Like a map of her life with Lampião, all the crossings and journeys, the battles and hideouts, she could see it all there, in the light of her eyes," Maria thinks while looking in a mirror. The knowledge of Maria and Lampião's inevitable end gives the work a contemplative air, in which the irresistible pull of love and the resulting travails and triumphs of living dangerously are elevated to a poetic ideal.

More long-form ode than rigorously plotted page-turner, Shorr's lyrical exploration of these Brazilian folk heroes is as much a study of love as of the shifting emotional terrain of an entire country.

Pub Date: May 11th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-393-24602-5
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2015


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