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Reviewed by Mary Vensel White
In Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, the curtain rises on a domestic drama involving Andres and Marabela, an upper-class Peruvian couple. Married for many years, they have grown apart and dispassionate. They sleep separately and spend most of their time in their own pursuits. Marabela shows little interest in Andres’s work at the company he built, preferring to shut herself away in the photography darkroom he has provided her—a symbol of how most of the light has gone out of their marriage. Marabela has already left Andres once and although she returned on that occasion, he is left with an overarching fear of losing her again. This possibility is paramount on his mind one evening when she doesn’t return from an errand. Later, he receives a letter claiming she’s been kidnapped and realizes she hasn’t left of her own volition.
Sylvester’s story is set in Peru of the 1990s where, unfortunately, kidnappings were common among the upper classes. The country’s political structure is in turmoil, with the frequent occurrence of widespread terrorist acts ranging from theft to abductions to bombings; a curfew is enforced and citizens live in a continual state of danger and unrest. This outer situation mirrors the inner instability of the marriage, in which Andres has come to feel imprisoned and powerless.
I like the way Sylvester uses Marabela’s kidnapping as a grenade of sorts, the catalyst that forces waves of change. The first half of the book deals mostly with the inner life of Andres and how he goes about trying to resolve the kidnapping and recover his wife. It’s a nuanced portrayal of a man nearing middle age. Past alliances and hurts affect his current roles as husband and father; most of Andres’s recent energies have been spent on his career and now, his relationships suffer. Sylvester captures well the desperation of his situation, the helplessness of a powerful man grappling with a situation out of his control. As Andres tries to free his wife, he comes to some realizations about their marriage and grapples with the fall-out from a past, lost love and a long-term rift with his parents. Eventually, he’ll be forced to reevaluate every aspect of his life.
The novel is many things at once. I appreciated the nuanced, patient pace of the opening sections, which really amplified what Andres was going through. The tone is one of foreboding and Sylvester keeps a taut level of suspense throughout. And there’s historical interest as well, as she delves into the political and cultural climate of Peru. Chasing the Sun illuminates a particular place in time and yet has at its center a universal story about love and relationships. The sum of all these parts: a completely compelling read.
Bio from Natalia Sylvester’s website:
Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester came to the U.S. at age four and grew up in south Florida, where she received a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Miami.
A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. Chasing The Sun, partially inspired by family events, is her first novel.
Follow Natalia Sylvester on Twitter: @NataliaSylv.
Mary Vensel White is an author and contributing editor of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.