There and back again

Friday, January 11, 2013

"Ways of Going Home," by Alejandro Zambra. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 139 pp. $24

It seems, sometimes, that life begins and ends in disaster. At the beginning of Alejandro Zambra's "Ways of Going Home," the unnamed narrator opens with an admission that "the night of the earthquake I was scared but I also, in a way, enjoyed what was happening."

As a boy, this young narrator spans off of the earthquake to the same night's sleepover where he first meets the older and more elusive Claudia, who asks him to spy on her uncle Raul. Looking through the eyes of this child, we see that something is unusual, though we don't understand the details.

"Ways of Going Home" can be classified as a coming-of-age novel, though it's difficult to state exactly who is coming of age: the narrator or the author. Half of the book is written like a novel, with characters and plot lines separate from the author's own experiences. The other half of the book is written as a memoir, detailing exact moments in the author's own life and mind while he's writing this book. Believe me, it's not as complicated as it seems, and I'll venture to say the fictional half is more powerful with the addition of the nonfictional half. While they are in ways different, it's easy to see how personal this novel was for Zambra to write, given the similarities.

Zambra is a well-respected Chilean poet, novelist and critic, and has authored two previous novels, "The Private Lives of Trees" and "Bonsai," which earned him a Chilean Critics Award for best novel. He was also elected to the "Bogota-39" list and named a Best Young Spanish-Language Novelist by "Granta" magazine.

In the same way that the novel opens in an earthquake, it closes in an earthquake. After weeks without writing in his diary, Zambra experiences an earthquake of his own. "I sat in a doorway and I thought, calmly and with a strange serenity, that it was the end of the world," he wrote.

"Ways of Going Home" is a beautiful novel, written so intimately into the experiences of a family and of the middle-class suburbs of Santiago, Zambra's hometown. A must-read for world literature enthusiasts and others who simply enjoy a good, engaging book.

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