Invisible Country by Annamaria Alfieri is a historical mystery set in Paraguay in 1868 (available July 3, 2012).
I admit, when I open a novel and encounter a page-long list of characters right off the bat, I panic. How am I supposed to keep all of the names and relationships straight? I can hardly keep track of my library books! (Just kidding, NYPL.) Annamaria Alfieri’s second historical mystery, Invisible Country, kicks off with a Dramatis Personae that would make Shakespeare proud, but the characters come into focus in relatively short time as distinct personalities with different habits, motivations, and secrets.
Invisible Country plunges the reader deep into the landscape of late nineteenth-century Paraguay, as the War of the Triple Alliance (with Paraguay on one side and Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay on the other) rages in the background. Although characters make a few attempts early on to explain why Paraguay is involved, I confess that I found it hard to follow the war’s machinations and preferred to focus on the mysteries instead.
The story opens in the small town of Santa Caterina, one Sunday after Mass, with a shocking statement. Padre Gregorio announces to his parish that the war’s toll on the male population (reduced by over ninety percent as a result of the war, the epigraph notes) means that parishioners should have children out of wedlock simply to ensure that the town will have a future. Padre Gregorio, too ashamed to look his stunned flock in the eyes, retreats to the back of the church, only to trip over a dead body that has been dumped on the doorstep.
The appearance of the body sets the plot top spinning, as the main characters gradually discover the murder and band together to solve it before the dictator, López, executes one of the townspeople for the murder out of sheer spite. The dead man is Ricardo Yotté, one of López’s henchmen and close friend of López’s Irish-born, French-bred consort, Eliza Lynch (who floats through the book on a cloud of privileged finery that contrasts with the town’s suffocating economic hardship).
Who killed Yotté? And what (if anything) does the murder have to do with a scene on page one featuring trunks being pushed off a cliff? (Not a spoiler, since it happens on the first page!) Initially, I thought keeping up with the various strands of the plot would be difficult, but I found the book hard to put down after the first chapter—the writing is lush and it’s easy to root for the townspeople.
Ostensibly led by Padre Gregorio (but ultimately led by two female characters who share the role of amateur sleuth—Xandra, a daughter of one of the town’s formerly prominent patriarchs, Salvador; and Maria Claudia, a devout parishioner), a handful of the townspeople attempt to solve the two main mysteries while staving off military attacks, cruelty by López and his men, and starvation.
One of the aspects I enjoyed most was how Alfieri shuffles the multiple points of view to paint a rich picture of Santa Caterina and its residents’ earth-shattering secrets. (And I do mean earth-shattering—I dropped the book and shouted, “WHAT?!” at one point.) Some mysteries with multiple points of view careen from one character’s head to the next, giving the reader whiplash—but somehow Invisible Country does this deftly; temporarily being in the head of even the most despicable characters seems natural.
The writing is dotted with flashes of humor, as when Alfieri describes one of the parishioners leering at a woman after Padre Gregorio’s startling homily: “Comandante Menenez, [eyed] Xandra León as if she were a pastry in a shop window in Buenos Aires [. . .]” But the detailed, atmospheric descriptions are what really seized me:
Rich, red earth, damp from rains during the night, oozed between Alivia’s bare toes. Moisture hung in the air. Huge drops of dew collected on the leaves of the bromeliads growing along the edge of the field and ran, like glistening pearls, down the high reedy grasses that grew in clumps under the tall palms. This was the first planting of maize that she and Salvador had done together, the first that might nourish their family and their neighbors rather than being taken for the army. In the old days, planting was an occasion for gatherings and celebrations, where the boys of ten and twelve dressed up as curupi, the old Guarani spirit of the crops. Not anymore. There were no more boys of that age. She clenched her teeth against the pain of loss.
I appreciate that this is not just description for the sake of description; passages like this let you see through a character’s lens of poverty and starvation. It’s what I imagine a National Geographic special on post-apocalyptic Paraguay would be like:
When they ducked into the picada, the long, low green tunnel through the dense trees that lead to the hiding place, the horse slowed to a walk and snorted. [Xandra] scissored her hands before her face to push away the dangling vines. Every once in a while she caught a glimpse of the darkening sky through the canopy of leaves and blossoms. [. . .] A blue partridge startled her by ﬂying up right in front of César, but the horse kept his footing. If she had Tomás’s pistol she would shoot it and bring it home and roast it for dinner. She never looked at birds anymore just to enjoy their plumage. They always looked like a meal, even the toucans squawking in the trees overhead.
In the end, Invisible Country balances textured historical detail with characters who refuse to settle for the hand history wants to deal them. This is one well worth reading—and re-reading.
Erin Ferretti Slattery is a freelance writer and editor living in New York. A member of MWA and SinCNY, she was a cookbook editor in Prague and an English instructor in Israel in previous lives. She tweets about Czech pastry and other objects of desire @efslattery.