Back when I was a teenager and still took rugby, or indeed anything other than childcare and the concomitant challenge of trying to fashion some sort of ‘me time’, seriously, the two best clubs in England were Bath and Leicester. Growing up near the latter, they were, and still are, my team of choice (indeed, I was briefly a member of their protozoan academy, in the brave new world of those immediately post-amateurism days). While the Underwood brothers were clearly the star attractions, the members of the ABC club (the world being neither brave nor as yet new enough to convince the Tigers to adopt numbers instead of letters on their shirts) were the kind of club stalwarts who inevitably rose to fan favourite status, and of whom none were more stalwarty than Darren ‘The Baron’ Garforth.
Those last two aren’t really true, though they do at least, and at last, bring me to the reason that I’ve opened this write up of a South American magical realist YA novel by embarking on a parentheses-riddled reminiscence on mid-nineties rugby union in the English midlands. The simple truth is that this book isn’t very good. The kindest adjective I can think of for it is ‘fatuous’, closely followed by ‘inane’. This would appear to be in contrast to the quote from the Guardian on the cover up there, which asserts that “Allende’s prose soars”. (Though further investigation suggests that this is a more than usually selective instance of the art of pull-quote mining.)
There are, to be fair, at least two sentences which almost threaten to get airborne, but for the most the writing is terrible. I’ve not read anything else by Allende (nor, to the best of my knowledge, any other translations by Peden), so can’t say for definite, but the style just reeks of the anesthetizing oversimplification of a ‘grown up’ author writing down for younger readers: short and choppy sentences, tediously reported thought and emotion, risible dialogue, and exposition so direct, perfunctory, and ill-disguised as to verge on the brutal. I can only assume that some similar kind of telephone-based miscomprehension occurred when the cover quote got committed to print over at the Grauniad. “Allende’s prose is sore”, maybe.
To make matters worse, once you push past the prose to the meat of the story, you discover that it’s a cliché riddled mess. And not just any clichés, no, these are M&S clichés, which means our cups overfloweth with problematic tropes mostly (but by no means exclusively) of the ‘Noble Savage’ family. Alex, an ordinary American boy (who still manages to be super special exactly when super specialness is required by the plot), finds himself with a dying mother and is packed off on an expedition to the deepest Amazon for reasons. On the way he acquires an exotic but non-threatening mixed-ethnicity companion who educates him the ways of a world incomparable to his previously cloistered existence. He then discovers that his spirit animal is a jaguar and that he is destined to be the (white, natch) saviour of an undiscovered tribe of indians, themselves possessed of ancient wisdom and ecological spiritualism long ago lost to the ‘civilised’ world: perhaps, and here’s something that’ll blow your mind, it is we who are the real savages?
Alex also has a magic flute, which serves largely the same plot-clearing function as a sonic screwdriver: Are your protagonists in a jam? Get one of them to tootle his instrument and soothe the savage tempers of the stinking murder sloths/albino dragon bats/homicidal (yet eco-friendly) ghost pygmies and it’ll all work out just fine. In fact, as best I can tell, the entire story is something of a riff on Mozart’s opera, which in no way excuses the manifold flaws in its execution. It also feels fairly short: while over 400 pages long, the font size is massive and the margins are so generous I’d be surprised if it broke the 70k barrier. Combined with the simple language this means that, despite the glacial pace of the plot, the actual reading goes fairly rapidly; after a couple of hours you realize you’re more than halfway through so you may as well finish the damn thing. To say it feels phoned in is to do a grave disservice to the creativity that process can encourage; I would have much, much rather read a book called City of the Beets.