City in the River, City in the Forest

Melanie Westerberg
Hag’s Head Press; €9.40

AS THE title suggests, there are elements of magic realism in this debut novel. Set in an indeterminate country in South America, it tells the story of Mary, an American tour guide, working at a remote lodge in a forest. She falls in love with Héctor, an activist and encantado, whose father came from the city in the river and seduced his mother.

Mary finds herself enchanted by the myth of the pink dolphins who transform into humans and once, while out on a boat, she fancies she can see the city below the water. For her, Hectór is a portal into another, magical world.

Puerto Anunciación, where he works, is far from her lodge and they communicate with notes pinned to the door, or small gifts left for each other. Sometimes he appears by her hammock late at night or she arrives back in her room to find him coiled under the duvet.

As with any young woman, Mary is beset with doubts and insecurities. We are privy to her thoughts, which she wisely keeps to herself, but one day she can’t resist going to his studio unannounced, just to see if he is there alone.

This is an ethereally romantic and exotic story, richly detailed with the myth of the pink dolphins, the power of snakes, the presence of parrots, macaws and tarantula spiders. From a bird blind deep in the forest, we witness the small goings-on of nature along with the few tourists who appear from time to time.

But underlying the mythical atmosphere is a more ominous note. Caridad, who runs the lodge, is shocked when her husband returns after years of absence. Suddenly, strange things happen. Fires are spotted, gunshots are heard, suspicious strangers appear.

Poetically lyrical, this story touches on the compelling power of superstition. More than anything, it is a mysterious, delicate tale that eludes definition. Worth the read.


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