Book Review – At Night We Walk in Circles

At Night We Walk in CirclesAt Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

“Heartbreak is like shattered glass: while it’s impossible that two pieces could splinter in precisely the same pattern, in the end, it doesn’t matter, because the effect is identical.”

It’s been a couple of days since I finished this book, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it.

From a literary standpoint, I really liked this book. It’s written as a first person narrative, which is a little hard to get used to at first, but once you do, it’s really insightful and interesting, very different from most reads. The tale is told from an outsider’s perspective, a character who is only very tangentially related to the story itself, and so it doesn’t have the omnipotent view that standard third person storytelling entails. You only get people’s thoughts if they told them to the narrator, only know what things look like from his perspective, only understand what he understands.

And sometimes, that’s not a whole lot. So it’s kind of like life, that way.

After flipping through some other reviews here, there seems to be a consensus that this book is fairly slow-moving. And it is… in a way. The pace is languorous with long passages of description or quiet bits of dialogue that don’t seem to mean much at the time. To me, this just brought me right there into the fictional South American country. Why?

I did a semester abroad in Costa Rica. There is a concept there known as “tico time”. People aren’t in such a rush. Things unfold in their own time. People are late. Events start late. Most people don’t follow a clock the same way they do in North America. It’s just a different way of looking at life. That’s what this book felt like to me; like it was taking place in tico time, and I was perfectly okay with that.

This story follows the movements of a small acting company touring “the provinces” of this un-named nation. They are putting on a play named “The Idiot President,” the initial writing of which, years before, landed one of them in prison for “terrorism”. Henry Nunez, the playwright, is incidentally bisexual. I say incidentally because it’s such a non-issue in the book; it’s rare to find a bisexual character, rarer for them to be male, and rarer still for it to be absolutely no big deal and just a side note to the plot itself. I really liked the way the writer handled this. The relationship occurred when Henry was in prison, but it wasn’t just prison sex, illustrated by the tender little moments they had together that Henry recalled, and the way he described their encounters as “making love”.

Nelson, the youngest member of the troupe, idolizes Henry – and really, this is Nelson’s story, though you don’t know that at first. There are hints that the narrator drops along the way, but many are misleading and confusing, and he spends only as much time under the focus of the narrator as Henry does, and barely more than most of the next tier of characters.

I guess if I were to choose an overarching theme that I thought this book had for me, it would be about self-destruction. Sometimes unconscious action or inaction, sometimes by not acting when we should, and sometimes, the least of the time, by actions we take deliberately. I was sad at the end of the book, but not sobbing or emotionally overwrought. More borne down by the depression that leaks out of every pore of the characters by the end.

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some dramatic climax, but that just doesn’t happen in this book. There is no big reveal, no “oh that’s why all this happened”, not even a real answer to whether or not Nelson belonged where he ended up or not. Just questions, remote sadness, and a bit of a feeling of disconnection. I felt for Nelson, up til the last chapter or so, but not any more. Some of that is likely what prison did to his character, but… meh. I just didn’t care any more. I couldn’t feel it.

But I’m still drawn back to liking the book as a whole. I just can’t explain why.

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What did you think?