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This article was published 16/9/2017 (1168 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For reasons unknown, good first novels set in Brazil by Canadian writers are proliferating. Cape Breton-based Sarah Faber’s All Is Beauty Now is this year’s most daring and successful experiment in this rich subspecies.
Daring, in that Faber has not only set her fiction in the Rio de Janeiro of the early 1960s — a time and place predictive of but far removed from the present-day political, social and economic realities of Brazil — but she has also given us intriguing facets of the little-known story of a group of Americans from the Civil War’s losing side. They fled to Brazil in the 1860s and are the antecedents of the family at the centre of this novel.
Faber is daring, too, in that she succeeds in deploying a narrative strategy that daunts many a more seasoned writer: the use of the present tense.
Faber has a very good reason for using this tactic. The novel opens with what becomes the novel’s fateful epicentre: a scene depicting the disappearance of the family’s oldest daughter, Luiza, on the beach in Rio where the three daughters are playing. All of the novel’s subsequent brief and episodic chapters are narrated, always in the present, through the alternating third-person voices of Luiza and of the rest of the family: Dora, the beautiful but brittle and grieving mother; Hugo, the manic, alternately brilliant, fulminating or despairing father; Magda, the rigid and impassioned second daughter; and Evie, the youngest and most fanciful of the girls.
As the narrative unfolds, it becomes evident that the entire family, grieving Luiza and searching for its lost centre, has begun to disintegrate in Brazil. Their painful dissembling in their guarded mansion in Rio resonates beyond their garden’s walls as they prepare for a relocation to Canada, where Hugo will seek better treatment for his disease.
But Canada is never portrayed as anything but a cold, grey, soulless and alien place that the whole family dreads; Brazil, by contrast, is outsized and profligate in its glittering and sunstruck decadence. It is sadly apt that Luiza reads about Brazil in a book of poems by Elizabeth Bishop, given to her by a shady and adulterous expatriate who haunts the family. Bishop’s Brazil, as her readers know, is a haunted paradise, forever alien, forever almost accessible to the North American imagination.
The powerfully cumulative effect of these alternating episodes is to create a dreamlike penumbra over the family’s restricted lives. This dream state is just what Faber seeks to evoke as she shuttles backward and forward over Luiza’s disappearance, laying bare the family’s successive secrets until by novel’s end we are given their fatally related pathos from within each character’s refracted vision.
That present tense, suspending the family in its paralyzed agony, works all too well: as the family finally prepares to embark for the long voyage to an unknown and cold half-continent, Faber’s readers have returned to the novel’s mysterious point of departure better, more sadly and more fully informed.
Phrase to phrase and sentence to sentence, Faber has given us a luminous, finely written account of a family’s estrangement from itself and from what it reverently dreamed of, but could never fully live in, as its Brazilian home.
Raised in Brazil, Neil Besner taught Canadian literature at the University of Winnipeg for 30 years.
Penguin Random House, 352 pages, $30
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