losing again, again

[Athol Dickson, Lost Mission (New York: Howard Books, 2009), 350 pages, US$14.99.]

For everything, there’s some sort of standard disclaimer.

In an interesting confluence of synchronicity, the day I began the Paradoxes, literary agent Rachelle Gardner offered free reviewer’s copies of Athol Dickson’s Lost Mission to interested critics on the blogosphere.  I had turned to Gardner’s site for suggestions on how to run a literary blog.  I thought that was a pretty good one.

The book arrived in due course, and I began to read.

That, of course, is the standard disclaimer.  The book I am about to review was a gift.  From: Publisher.  To: Reviewer.  Happy Reading!  We love you, too!

Weirdly, Dickson’s novel is about synchronicity.  It could in fact be read as a tour de force of cyclic history.  What happens once might happen again, in exactly the same way, with no one realizing it until much too late, and a lot of people have died.

Eddies in the space-time continuum.  And this is his sofa.

The novel tells two stories.  One, set in the mid-eighteenth century, tells of the mystic call of Fray Alejandro Tapia Valdez to leave Spain and found a mission in Alta California and evangelize the indigenous tribes.  The other, set in a vague present day, tells of the devout Mexicana shopkeeper, Guadalupe Soledad Consuelo de Garza (Lupe for short), and her mystic call to enter the US illegally as a missionary to the Americanos.

The two stories synchronize, whether by fluke of history or divine orchestration.  Each main character correlates with another.  Shifting points of view gradually revealing a uniformity of vision.  Lupe the shopkeeper is a reinvention of Alejandro the friar—as beautiful as he is ugly, with the same self-doubt, the same unhesitating devotion, the same thoughtfully questioning mind, the same sense of failure.  Until the end of their respective narratives, they remain ignorant of their true mission, and its ultimate destiny.

The central miracle of the story embodies this confluence—the incomplete retablo of Fray Alejandro.  Like the Mirror of Erised, people cannot be allowed to gaze at it overlong, lest they see more than they expected and go mad.  The novel derives much of intrigue from the mesmeric power the retablo holds over Lupe.  Dickson packs a nice twist to explain this—one that I, at any rate, didn’t anticipate.

The novel’s biggest weakness, however, are the female characters.  With the exception of Lupe, the women in the story seem to exist as one-dimensional foils to the male point-of-view characters.  They provide occasions for angst, and repressed (or not so repressed) sexual desire.  I kept waiting for him to reveal their individuality and complexity, as persons not defined by male psyche.  He didn’t.

Dickson’s narrative style is uneven.  He can’t seem to decide whether he’s writing a psychological mood piece, or a thriller.  He seems to want to write the former, which is a pity, since he does suspense well, and psychology unconvincingly.

His dialogue alternates between crisp exchange and hackneyed ‘realistic’ blather.  That might not be a fault though—as the characters who blather certainly would blather in real life.  It’s just annoying to read.

Most annoying is his transitional device between stories.  He selects a theme common to both and addresses the reader, urging him or her to consider it.  Then he points out the thematic similarity in both stories, and proceeds with the parallel narrative.  It’s a bit jarring, and decidedly retro nineteenth century.

In the end, I left the book content, but not thrilled.  The weird intersection of the twin narratives intrigued me, but didn’t haunt me.  Dickson has told a smart tale, with two compelling protagonists.  ‘And as it thus afflicted Alejandro in the eighteenth century,’ he explains, ‘so it was with Lupe in these modern times.’

Come now.  Surely a section break would have done?

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