It’s been 20 years since Bob Shacochis—gourmand, adventurer and grand writer—last delivered a novel, the sprawling Swimming in the Volcano. He’s back with a tale that plays out on a similarly broad canvas, partly in his beloved Caribbean, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.
But, Shacochis hastens to note, it’s not as if he’d been idling in the islands during his two-decade absence. After Swimming in the Volcano appeared, he gathered the pieces he’d written for GQ about food, love and other topics and published Domesticity (1994), which proved popular enough that his editor at the magazine asked him for more, but, he says, “I really had nothing more to say about food or my relationship with my wife.” Instead, he took an assignment from Harper’s to cover the US military intervention in Haiti, which led to a year and a half of being embedded with Special Forces units on and off the island, then to his book The Immaculate Invasion (1999).
All the while, Shacochis says, he was making slow progress at a novel that wasn’t working out quite right: “I had written hundreds of pages over the years but never seemed able to nail the novel's voice.” When his editor left the business, he switched houses, to Atlantic and Morgan Entrekin, and switched books as well, dropping the contracted novel and, in 2002, beginning The Woman Who Lost Her Soul in its place.
Shacochis drew heavily on his experiences in Haiti for his new book, but it jets across the globe in the Cold War and its long aftermath, populated by aid workers, intelligence types, soldiers, and restless travelers who seem a little out of place once back in their own countries. “My core subject has always been American expatriates,” he says, and his settings are stages “for the dramas I crate to explore the personalities and characters of contemporary Americans who have gone upriver, so to speak.”
Though he says the story came somewhat easier than Swimming in the Volcano, it took time to sort out the latter novel’s complex plot lines. Mapping out the story required plenty of on-the-ground research, not just in Haiti but also across the water in places such as Turkey, where he looked into how one of his chief characters would have lived and behaved: the cafes she would have frequented, the ferry routes she would have taken, the dangers a teenager might face on the back streets of Istanbul after dark. “Hundreds of questions, really,” Shacochis says, “and the answers provided the granular authenticity and sense of verisimilitude that allowed the narrative to be taken for granted and accepted.” He adds, “At least I hope so.”
Verisimilitude isn’t a problem, for Shacochis brings a field journalist’s habits of deep research and sharp characterization to bear on every page. Besides, he’s lived with most of his characters for years—not just in his mind, but in real life. He notes that several of them have counterparts in real life, and that he’s having dinner with a couple of them while beginning his tour to support the novel. (“The gung-ho evangelical Muslim-hater Colonel Hicks will not be invited,” he says.) He also grew up inside the Beltway, just down the road from Washington, D.C., and CIA headquarters, so bureaucrats and spies are no strangers to him.
Will readers have to wait another 20 years for the next big novel? Shacochis says no: The novel he set aside for The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is back up and running, so, he says, “Give me three years. Okay, four.” Meanwhile, he’s also at work on a small book about a real incident involving the Portuguese colonial government in Mozambique, which set out a program for slaughtering elephants. Exactly why lies at the heart of the story, and so does Shacochis’s urgent question: “Seriously, how could we ever live in a world without elephants?”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.