With the publication two years ago of his short-story collection "War by Candlelight" (HarperCollins), Daniel Alarcón received critical acclaim that included comparisons to Mario Vargas Llosa, Flannery O'Connor and Ernest Hemingway.
Born in Peru and living in northern California, Alarcón unflinchingly portrays people battered by civil strife, natural disasters and governmental abuses. He now brings us his first novel, "Lost City Radio" (HarperCollins, hardcover $24.95), a potent, disturbing, but, in the end, hopeful portrait of a nation torn by years of war and betrayal.
Set in an unnamed South American country, Alarcón's novel centers on Norma, the host of a popular program, "Lost City Radio," in which she reads the names of missing persons and lends an understanding ear to callers who hope she can help them reunite with lost loved ones. Norma has become a celebrity, a voice everyone knows, the apolitical salve for a nation that has lost too much.
Why Norma? "She was a natural: She knew when to let her voice waver, when to linger on a word, what texts to tear through and read as if the words themselves were on fire."
Norma's unctuous boss, Elmer, wants high ratings without angering those in power. Government authorities are more than willing to make radio employees disappear if they seem to sympathize with the Illegitimate Legion, a guerrilla faction based in the nation's mountains and jungles. Though the war with the IL is technically over, suspicion and distrust are ingrained in the nation's psyche.
Norma is no stranger to loss. She nurses the hope of finding her husband, Rey, who disappeared 10 years earlier.
Rey, an ethnobotanist, would leave Norma for long stretches to venture into the jungle, ostensibly to study indigenous remedies. With cities and villages stripped of their original names, Rey often visited "Village 1797." He failed to return home after one such foray. Rey's covert jungle activities as an IL sympathizer has convinced Norma that the government is responsible for her husband's disappearance.
One day, a village boy, Victor, is brought to the radio station to meet Norma. "He was slender and fragile, and his eyes were too small for his face. His head had been shaved -- to kill lice, Norma supposed." The boy carries a letter from the residents of Village 1797, who pooled their money to send Victor to the city for a "better life." The letter includes a list of lost people, some of whom may have fled to the city. "Perhaps one of these individuals will be able to care for the boy," says the letter.
The list of names includes one Norma recognizes: an IL pseudonym once used by Rey. Could Victor be Norma's last and best chance of finding her husband?
Norma and Rey share the stage with unforgettable characters whose histories connect in compelling and poignant ways. Manau, the village schoolteacher who takes Victor to see Norma, is a man whose body is covered with sores from his life in the humid jungle, a man who enjoyed a too-brief romance with Victor's late mother, Adela. And there's Zahir, another resident of Village 1797, whose hands were hacked off by zealous members of the IL. Though falsely accused of stealing food, Zahir accepts his punishment because of other evil things he has done.
Alarcón's narrative has the ebb and flow of a dark dream. With a fluid chronology that curves upon itself and doubles back effortlessly, he allows the past to mingle and compete with the present. There are no false steps or strained sentences. "Lost City Radio" is, quite simply, a triumph. Alarcón has created a sublimely terrifying, war-ravaged world populated by unforgettable and fully realized characters. But at the novel's core is a story of hope, one that renders the resiliency of human nature in all its imperfect glory.
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swange, February 22, 2007 (view all comments by swange)
As much as I love David Letterman,I hate falling asleep on the sofa waiting the see the musical guest.I need a book that draws me into my cozy bed with my reading glasses -every night.I read "Lost City Radio" slowly,so I could savor and enjoy as long as possible.
I like a book that has a few words that I turn to the dictionary for.And enjoy being delighted to find that the unknown word is a perfect word.
Who to pass this book along to? My sister who recently visited Lima? My senior friend who enjoys reading history and politics? My neighbor who spent part of her childhood in South America? My best friend who just got dumped by her boyfriend? My co-worker who gave me "The Shadow of the Wind" to read? My lover who likes to read Nelson DeMille and Harlan Coben? My buddy active in the ACLU?
I'll share it with all of them.
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"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"Set in a fictional South American nation where guerrillas have long clashed with the government, Alarcón's ambitious first novel (after the story collection War by Candlelight) follows a trio of characters upended by civil strife. Norma, whose husband, Rey, disappeared 10 years ago after the end of a civil war, hosts popular radio show Lost City Radio, which reconnects callers with their missing loved ones. (She quietly entertains the notion that the job will also reunite her with her missing husband.) So when an 11-year-old orphan, Victor, shows up at the radio station with a list of his distant village's 'lost people,' the station plans a special show dedicated to his case and cranks up its promotional machine. Norma, meanwhile, notices a name on the list that's an alias her husband used to use, prompting her to resume her quest to find him. She and Victor travel to Victor's home village, where local teacher Manau reveals to Norma what she's long feared — and more. Though the mystery Alarcón makes of the identity of Victor's father isn't particularly mysterious, this misstep is overshadowed by Alarcón's successful and nimbly handled portrayal of war's lingering consequences." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day"
by Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor,
"Lost City Radio is indeed a wrenching commentary on the devastation war can inflict. But the mystery at the heart of this story is not political — it's a riddle of the human heart." (read the entire CSM review)
by Library Journal,
"Literature is fortunate to have such a promising, thought-provoking young writer."
by Booklist (Starred Review),
"Writing rapturously and elegiacally of the wildness in both jungle and city, creating indelible images that concentrate the horrors of war, and unerringly articulating the complex feelings of individuals caught in barbaric and senseless predicaments, Alarcón reaches to the heart of our persistent if elusive dream of freedom and peace."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"Alarcón has mapped a whole nation and given its war-torn history real depth — an impressive feat."
by Los Angeles Times,
"Few first-time novelists skillfully pursue so many separate intentions — history, mystery, cautionary tale — or manage to coordinate their simultaneous unfolding. Lost City Radio is a bravura performance."
by Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle,
"There were moments while I was lost in [this] wonderfully imagined world...that I felt as though I were reading a novel by the...marvelous Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti. I mean that as a compliment and as a writer's, as well as a critic's, doff of the hat."
by San Antonio Express-News,
"Alarcón painstakingly reminds us that soldiers don't go into skirmishes alone; they take with them loved ones who yearn for an embrace and the chance to utter their names upon safe passage home."
by Rocky Mountain News,
"[A]n impressive debut novel from Alarcón, who effortlessly moves between the emotional longing Norma lives with for years and the violent political power-struggle waged between the government and its opposing guerilla factions."
by Minneapolis Star Tribune,
"In the end, if Lost City Radio doesn't come together as the full realization of Alarcón's genius, it's simply because he himself is guilty of setting the bar so high."
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