The Zig Zag Way by Anita Desai
This was another Bookcrossing find and what attracted me initially was the rather odd front cover of the skeleton with flowers around it. It was also pretty thin with only 179 pages and also on the front was this quote:
"She is one of the finest English language novelists of modern times." The Daily Telegraph
Turning to the back more praise is heaped on the author and her abilities from various critics and the blurb spoke of a story set in Mexico so I was thinking this had a lot of promise.
Basically a young, rather shy man ( Eric) goes with his rather more confident girlfriend on a trip to Mexico. She then goes off to do whatever work she went there for and he is left to decide how to entertain himself. He vaguely remembers that his paternal grandparents had come from Cornwall to Mexico to work in the silver mines and sets off on a quest to discover a bit more about them and what happened to them.
This has so much promise as the story goes exploring the history of silver mining and the characters involved as well as the possibilities of developing Eric's own story, his relationship with his girl friend, Em and those people he encounters along the way.
Sadly I was struggling from page one as I hate it when authors write in unnecessarily complicated and convoluted ways. This is the sentence that nearly had me putting the book down very early on.
"Since the inn was directly across the square from where the bus had stopped, he could not have missed it even in the dusk. The wind that had scraped and scoured the hills around till the stones gleamed white now struck the tin signboard against the wall of the inn with the sound of a bell striking the hours, drawing his attention to it."
It might be beautifully poetic but I had to read it twice as I had lost interest by the time I was half way through and it is just a needlessly complicated a description adding nothing to the story for me.
The characters just never really became real. Em may as well not have existed as there are few scant references to her as Eric thinks about what she might have said had she been there but really not adding anything to the story for me.
Dona Vera who had the potential to become a really interesting and rather odd character fizzled out into nothing just as I was starting to become mildly interested in her story and background. She escaped from Nazi Germany just as things were starting to become difficult but we never find out if she was connected to the Nazis or why she was so keen to marry the rich Mexican who was so much older than her or why she then more or less left him to live in the family hacienda and spends her time riding in the hills. Why did she become interested in the local Indians and what was her relationship with the young india in a photo she looks at? These things are all hinted at but never develop into anything.
The best part of the book was Eric grandparent's story and how they lived in small huts and the lifestyle they had. This was just beginning to become interesting and develop into something with a bit more meat to it when once again the story shifts to the next generation and Eric's arrival. Although this did put his background into context it was all just too skimmed over for me.
We then jump to the Dia de los Muertos, the feast day when the local people remember their dead and celebrate with them by bringing them gifts. This is the part where Eric attends not really sure why he is attending. He talks to some rather odd people as he goes on his way. I wasn't sure whether he was talking to people who were alive or people from the past. I won't spoil this in case you want to read the book yourself but this was all very weird and rather confusing for me.
This part was described on the back as where;
".....the various strands of the novel come together hauntingly, bringing together past and present in a moment of quiet, powerful epiphany. "
Sorry but I missed that. The threads of the novel do come together as described but in a rather obvious way in my view and it is far from being a 'powerful epiphany', strange and rather weird is more like my interpretation. And 'Why bother?' springs to my mind.
I couldn't decide if it was meant to be a young adult book or aimed at adults. It was shallow enough to be a short story or young adult book but the way it is written seems to me to be more aimed at adults. In my very humble opinion she would have been better to have concentrated on developing the characters and filling in some more eventful happenings in the story rather than concentrating on the waffly descriptions.
How interesting and exciting could a story have been with the setting described on the back;
...he is overwhelmed with sensory overload, but gradually seduced - by the strangeness, the colour, the mysteries of an older world. He finds himself ona curious quest for his own family in a 'ghost' mining town, now barely inhabited, where almost a hundred years earlier young Cornish miners worked the rich seams in the earth."
Now give that shell of a story to any number of modern authors such as James Mitchener, Wilbur Smith and many others and you would get a rollicking good yarn from that with interweaving stories from various characters. Instead we have a rather one dimensional affair that left me wondering why she had bothered and wishing I hadn't bothered reading it really was rather a simple short story.
Having read this I feel no inclination at all to seek out any more of this author's books. She was apparently short listed for a Booker prize for another novel 'Fasting, Feasting' but I know nothing of that book. She has written several other books but none that I have read or will be reading I feel.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
"Desai has a gift of opening up a closed world and making it clearly visible." - The Sunday Times
"Anita Desai is one of Tolstoy's inheritors. Like his, her writing is sensuous, radical and uncannily perceptive." - The Times
As you can see three glowing reviews for this book and the author so maybe I am not intellectual enough to appreciate this so don't take my word for it and let me put you off as obviously some have enjoyed it. I did look on Amazon and the book has very mixed reviews from a five star to a one star and little in between so people either love it's waffly descriptions and shallow characters or they hate is as they want a story with a bit more humph about it and characters that are actually a bit more real and that you can actually care a bit about.
I left this book along with three others in Wisconsin at Izaty's resort.
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