Thursday, October 11, 2012

Alexios, Before Dying - book review

"Alexios, Before Dying", by Chance Maree

My rating: 4/5

Books such as this one are hard to write reviews of. For one, there’s a real danger of giving away important plot elements. It’s not too much of a giveaway to state that one enters this book like a giant labyrinth, in which the way “forward” is anything but evident. Characters are thrown into the universe, and the link between them is initially unclear.

We start with Velia, a young black girl in 1924 New York City, who has a severe case of synesthesia. She becomes the apprentice of a street performer, The Magician, whose real name is not revealed and whose sexuality and lifestyle have held him on the fringes of society long enough to recognize a kindred soul in the misfit Velia.

Then, in a totally different setting, we encounter Kimi, a woman burying herself alone in the desert on a shamanic journey. She is shepherded by The Shaman (real name not given), an Australian exile whose choices (in this life and past ones) have trapped him in a relationship with a cruel woman.

Then, there’s Leta, a blue-eyed redhead with a gift for seeing scenes of the past and supernatural beings, visiting the muslim holy lands in the company of The Sufi (real name not given).

Just now realizing that the male characters are identified by their function (magician, shaman, sufi) and female characters by their name. Anyway.

As the story unfolds, it appears that these characters do not occupy the same time periods and the links from one to another slowly appear. It’s not until they actually die that the links become even more clear, and then not until the … sorry, can’t explain without spoiling.

The novel is focused on the transformations that the characters undergo personally and collectively. They enchant, beguile, cajole, sometimes brusque one another, and the accumulated momentum carries over into the afterlife.

I must admit I sometimes found the characters to overly virtuous. For instance, The Magician will sometimes steal a watch, but with his talent, the ease with which he does it and the economically difficult context in which he lives, you’d expect him to do a lot more of it. Similarly, Kimi shows herself to be laudable in thinking of her husband and handicapped step son even in the middle of her shamanic journey undertaken to wean meaning from her terminal illness.

The writing, nevertheless, is quite enjoyable. It skips merrily and never shies from going straight to the point. Here’s an example, in which Kimi has buried herself:

“Here, in her grave, Kimi’s soul felt stripped bare; all that remained was flesh and whinning bones. She felt she were no longer either a wife or a step-mother. Not an in-law, employee, co-worker, citizen, consumer, friend, or even a woman. Only a body. A stray hman being planted in earth for safekeeping.
In certain moments, whole strands of existence are smartly captured.
“The boys adored their father and thought him the wisest man on Earth. He’d wink at them when their mother hauled them off to religious studies. The boys learned to wink, too.”
I enjoyed the depictions of the afterlife and found they were treated with the required humour and distance. Overall, the novel is one of journeys undertaken, relationships forged and bonds made that have unsuspected weight.

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