In The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos, Margaret Mascarenhas’ American debut, the feminine mystique is juxtaposed with revolutionary chaos in the remote rural villages of Venezuela. Exploring the tangled relationships binding mothers and daughters, best friends and lovers, Mascarenhas’ magical novel is inhabited by an eclectic cast of characters whose lives are inexorably altered by the missing Irene dos Santos.

Fifteen-year-old Irene is assumed to have drowned swimming in a lagoon while vacationing with her best friend Lily Martinez, though her body is never recovered. Deftly sidestepping a chronological plot, Mascarenhas weaves the past with the present, braiding them together with the magical threads of folk legends. Not unlike best-selling novelist Amy Tan, Mascarenhas understands the enchanting seduction of mystical tales laden with life lessons and an indomitable heroine—in this case, the Venezuelan goddess Maria Lionza.

When Lily’s long-awaited first pregnancy is imperiled—leaving her bedridden—her family and friends gather at her bedside and instinctively turn to the beloved Maria Lionza, offering up prayers and promises. And when Lily’s dreams are haunted by a ghost-like apparition of Irene, the decades-old, unsolved mystery is revived, and the dormant friendship is reignited. If the novel’s flashbacks and folk tales can sometimes be discombobulating, the patient reader will appreciate the complexity of the narrative—a vibrant montage of despair and hope, joy and pain. For those unfamiliar with the seemingly never-ending revolutions plaguing the people of Latin America, the novel’s unflinching account of poverty and violence is sure to be a revelation. Still, the raw realism is tempered by Mascarenhas’ truthful portrayal of the relationships that prevail—despite the desperation of a nation decimated by decades of senseless destruction.  

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