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30th September
2009
written by Steph
In a way, this book does dig its own grave...

In a way, this book does dig its own grave...

One of the nice things about going to a used bookstore where the merchandise is pretty much dirt cheap is that it allows me to be more adventurous with my reading choices.  I would never plonk down $14 on an unknown author, but when a book is only $2 or so, I feel I can take some risks.  When I found The Gravedigger by Peter Grandbois, the mentions of magical realism and comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez made this a book I knew I wanted to read, even though I’d never heard anything else about it.  I decided to take a chance… but did it pan out? Before I talk about my reaction to the novel, the basic premise: Juan Rodrigo works as the gravedigger for a tiny rural village in Spain.  As undertaker, he is tasked with more than just burying the dead, he is also a gifted storyteller who is able to communicate with the spirits of the recently departed, sharing their life’s true story (both the highs and the lows) with all who remain behind in the land of the living in the hopes that he can ease their burdens and help them move on with their lives.  Both jobs come with quite the burden of responsibility, but Juan Rodrigo has one other important task he must undertake on a daily basis: raising his thirteen year-old daughter, Esperanza, who is as headstrong as her deceased mother.  And as Esperanza begins the fraught journey that every girl must take as she begins to blossom into a woman, Juan Rodrigo finds that this job is about become even more difficult. I really wanted to like this novel, because I really do love books that involve magical realism.  They always seem so lush and dreamy and… intoxicating.  There were parts of this novel that I thought captured that spirit aptly, but largely I felt confused by The Gravedigger, and also kind of disappointed.  I felt the narrative itself was pretty disjointed and jumpy; it felt like characters and information were getting lost in the shuttling back and forth between the past and the present.   I also wasn’t ever entirely sure what Grandbois’s intentions were in writing this novel: did he mean to ruminate on the importance and biased nature of storytelling, the fact that even in the most fantastical of stories we can find truth, or was this about something else?  Was it about love?  Life? Death?  I’m not really sure.  At times he introduced these interesting fairytale type elements into the story, but I wasn’t sure what purpose they were serving.  In fact, I tended to feel like the more supernatural elements of the story that Grandbois introduced tended to produce more questions, rather than adding an depth to the novel. (Warning, spoilers ahead!)  Why was it important that Esperanza was the “green flower” and could bridge the worlds of the living and the dead?  What did that add to the story?  And what about the little ghost girl in white?  What made her so special – was she somehow related to Juan Rodrigo (there is such an emphasis placed on her unknown identity early on that I felt certain that there would be some kind of momentous reveal later in the novel)? I did feel that Grandbois effectively evoked a strong sense of place – his little town felt hazy and warm, isolated from time, perfect for the fairytale story he was developing.  But I felt that he didn’t give his characters as much credit – much of their actions and behavior felt superficial and hollow; they were never very well drawn and I felt there was little advancement or layering as the novel progressed.  I never felt like I was able to truly understand Juan Rodrigo or really any of the people in the novel, as they felt like characters in a book rather than living and breath people who very well could have inscrutable motivations.  Really, it felt like a book populated with caricatures more than anything else, which I think prevented me from really connecting with the book.  I especially had a hard time with Esperanza, because the author kept saying she was on the cusp of womanhood, and yet so often she behaved as a young child and so I could not really take her romance with Antonio very seriously.  And with Esperanza’s story, I really felt strongly that the author had no real gameplan and then got swept away with this overly melodramatic story that served no purpose that I could divine.  It all just felt very unfocused to me – I suppose in retrospect it is not surprising that this was Grandbois’s debut novel; it certainly lacked a lot of the polish and authorial intention I would expect from a more established and mature writer. Finally, the writing.  Sometimes it was quite lovely, nicely evocative, and legitimately felt that it was Spanish in origin.  I actually stopped to see if this had been translated because certain phrases had the cadence and musicality that one would not expect in English, so I was impressed to find that Grandbois was born in Minneapolis (although he clearly does speak Spanish).  So the language added authenticity to the story that sometimes was lacking elsewhere.  But at other times the language was really juvenile and felt very inelegant, so it was also inconsistent.  Another random thing that bugged me was that the story takes place in Spain, so we assume the characters would really be speaking Spanish, even though we are reading in English.  But then many of the characters would use these untranslated exclamations, or say something in Spanish, which I found really jarring, because then it made the rest of their dialogue that was in English confusing… and every time this happened, it threw me out of the story.  And sometimes they would say something in Spanish and because English readers wouldn’t know what was said, they would then say it again in English, and I found this really bothersome as well, because it felt inauthentic, because no one would do that!  I think it’s great when language is at the forefront of a story, but not in this way! So I guess the bottom line is that it is all well and good to try new things and be adventurous, but it isn’t always going to pay off.  This book had a lot of potential, but unfortunately I feel it wasn’t a completely successful actualization of everything that it could have been.  At times I felt Grandbois effectively tapped into and worked the fantastical fable vibe, but I ultimately didn’t feel the novel was a complete thought or vision.  It wasn’t unpleasant to read, but I was never truly dazzled by it.  I wouldn’t say the comparisons to Marquez were shortsighted or incorrect, but when you get down to it, why go for the paltry substitute when you could have the real deal? Rating: 3 out of 5

3 Comments

  1. 09/30/2009

    Great lead! It made me laugh. Too bad about the turnout. Your synopsis made me interested too.

  2. 09/30/2009

    I also tend to get swept up in the excitement of the promise of magical realism, but at times it just doesn’t work out for me. I think that good magical realism is kind of rare, and although I have found a few books that have done it really well, I think I have also come across several stinkers. I don’t think I would enjoy this book, it sounds too uneven and unclear, although the premise does sound interesting. If you want to read a really good book with some clever magical realism, I can recommend The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. It compresses the main threads of the Mahabharata into a novel, and I thought it was a wonderful read.

  3. 10/01/2009

    @ Cara: It wasn’t a bad book, just not anything spectacular. It happens.
     
    @ zibilee: Thanks for the recommendation! I haven’t heard of that book or that author, but it sounds really interesting… much better than this one!

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