At Night We Walk In Circles by Daniel Alarcon

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At Night We Walk In Circles by Daniel Alarcon

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Set in Latin America, a series of fateful choices don't turn out so well for Nelson. Darkly humorous, if a little slow paced at times. Prepare to spend at least three quarters of the book wondering who the narrator is.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: January 2014
Publisher: Fourth Estate
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0007517398

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Peruvian-born Daniel Alarcón returns to South America in this story of one man's downfall and the twists and turns of fate that not only contributed to this but also which compelled the narrator of this story to seek to understand what happened. The main character, a young man named Nelson whose plans to follow his older brother to the US are halted when his father dies forcing him to care for his mother, has trained to be an actor but his career is going nowhere. Then he lands a part in a notorious three person play that is going to tour the provinces. One of the trio is the play's writer, Henry, a man who was imprisoned under terrorist charges when the play was first produced. With Nelson's ex girlfriend now pregnant with another man's child, the temptation to get away from his life in his home city is too tempting. No one could have forecast what the impact this tour would have on his life though.

The narrator of the novel remains a mystery until very late in the book and the style is very much one whereby there are constant references to 'what would happen later' but as with the identity of the narrator, the reader has to wait a very long time to find out what this is. That knowingness by the narrator but withheld from the reader is a tricky thing to carry off and there are times when it becomes a little irritating. While it does afford the writer to build up the suspense, it also runs the risk of alienating the reader from the action slightly.

Alarcón is one of my favourite American (where he has lived since he was three) short story writers and some of what makes him so compelling in the short form is evident here. He has great skill in painting clear images of situations and a satisfying level of dry humour to situations. However, there is a warning contained in the title of this book: there is a fair bit of the story going around 'in circles' and at times it feels like an interesting short story preceded by a long lead in. It's a book that I enjoyed while I was reading it but not one that screamed out to me to pick it back up again. This is, I think, due to the fact that the early part in particular is somewhat slow paced. In some ways perhaps this is fitting as the three actors head into the rural areas from the city, but while not a particularly long book, the nub of the story is relatively brief and doesn't really kick off until late on in the book.

Nelson gets more and more caught up in an uncomfortable role, with is both blackly funny but also very sad.

In the main, the topic of the book seems to be about fate and to some extent things repeating themselves. Alarcón is particularly good at describing the horrors of prison life and while there are similarities across the generations between writer Henry and young Nelson, Alarcón seems to be hinting also at the obstacles faced by those of Henry's generation, which were political and about a noble struggle over a repressive regime, while the younger generation seem to get into similar scrapes but with less noble, more personal causes.

There's no doubt this is an interesting and entertaining book and at his best, Alarcón has a touch of the classic Russian writers, notably Dostoevsky, about him. My reservations about it arise I think more due to the structure of the book and the mysterious narrator. To me, this gets in the way of getting to the depths of what are some very interesting characters. There is a tacit suggestion that the reader might know 'what happened' at the outset - which of course they don't - and this doesn't help. The narrator is focussed on tracking down the story rather than on characterization and for me, this slightly detracts from the book, as indeed does the ending. But Alarcón is certainly a writer to follow.

Out grateful thanks to the kind people at Fourth Estate for sending us this book.

For more South American fiction, A Crack in the Wall by Claudia Pineiro is worth checking out.

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