Saturday, September 06, 2014

Book Review: THE SUMMER OF DEAD TOYS

Title: Summer of Dead Toys
Author: Antonio Hill
Publisher:
Pages: 368







Originally published in Spanish, The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill is a multi-layered story about a burning issue that is in crying need of being spoken about.

The Epilogue’s first person viewpoint of an unnamed six-year-old boy who has just espied Iris, an older child, floating dead in the swimming pool gives way to the third person viewpoint of Hector Salgado, a man whose distress is evident in the first few pages through his lost sleep, his lost suitcase and his estranged wife, Ruth, and consequently, son, Guillermo.

Undergoing a departmental inquiry for beating up Dr Omar, an African witchdoctor accused of trafficking young Nigerian girls, Hector is suspended. One of the girls, 15-year-old Kira, kills herself brutally rather than submit to the nightmare of prostitution. Furious at the sight of her bleeding and lifeless body, Hector loses his head and beats up Dr Omar. 


Suspended temporarily, Hector is assigned to the suicide/accident case of 19-year-old Marc Castells, who stepped out on the window sill of his attic for a smoke, and plunged down four storeys to his death. Just before his death, Marc had spent the festival of San Juan with friends Gina Marti and Aleix Rovira in his room.

Marc’s father and the police believe that it was an accident, but Joana, the mother who abandoned Marc when he was a baby, thinks otherwise, and puts pressure on Superintendent Savall.

Pending his own investigation, Hector takes over the case unofficially. Personally he believes that Marc’s death was an accident, induced by momentary dizziness as a result of the alcohol, and then he begins to suspect something more devious.

Joana receives a mail from alwaysiris@hotmail.com, forging a sudden connection between the reader and the Prologue, a rude awakening for the reader, and reliving nightmares for Fr Felix, Marc’s uncle.

When Dr Omar disappears on the very day on which Hector was to meet him, leaving behind a pig’s head and blood everywhere, it seems evident that Hector is to blame for the disappearance and subsequent murder of the witchdoctor.

Meanwhile, skeletons begin to tumble out of people’s closets. Carefully cultivated facades begin to crack. The mystery deepens as hidden agendas are revealed.

Will Hector succeed in solving the mystery of Marc’s death, and will the answers in the Dr Omar case convict him?

In the hands of a great writer, the matter-of-fact can become revelatory. And so Hector’s “accusatory wardrobe full of empty hangars” tells of a once full life gone to pieces. The loneliness and anxieties of of a man whose wife has left him is seen in the condition of his fridge, “empty as a brothel in Lent.”

Hill does a great job with the characterizations. The characters come alive, in just a few words, and not through literal descriptions but through their back stories, their habits and mannerisms, our psychological makeup that defines us more completely than our appearance does.

The language learner in me is always thrilled to read Spanish words strewn about, words that served to bring the Barcelona setting alive.

The characters are all strong. Whether it is Sergeant Martina Andreu, Hector’s colleague whose loyalty to him encourages her to make investigations on his behalf, or Superintendent Savall, or the new recruit, Leire Castro, who partners Hector on the Marc investigation.

Each character has layers and complexities, even those that aren’t central to the story. And almost everyone is belabouring under the weight of their own anxieties, tortured by their own minds.

In the case of Marc, the layers are literally peeled aside, one by one, as we come to know him after his death, through the statements of those who knew him in life. If there is any occasion when the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead is turned on its head, it is at a murder investigation.

The women are all a credit to their sex, with strong feminist overtones to their thoughts and speech, and their desire to empower others. Leire denounces the trafficking of young African girls.

And yet their vulnerabilities clearly show through. Even Ruth, Hector’s wife, who walks out on him, claiming to want to explore her sexuality, is an example of the power exuded by women in this world.

Interestingly, in a remarkable change of technique, the author describes the present in the past tense and the flashbacks and memories of the past in the present tense, making them real and vivid.

As the protagonist, Hector is sufficiently troubled in his personal life, yet overcomes these challenges to surmount the challenges of his professional life.

The language is more figurative than literal. First you read the words, and then instead of reading on, you find that your eyes have retraced the journey that those words have made, finding meaning, layers, behind those words. Perhaps it is the dulcet rhythms of the Spanish that have crept through.

The omniscient narrator takes us into the third person lives of all the characters. The resultant atmosphere makes for a richer, more nuanced understanding of what is going on in the lives of the characters, what is at stake for them, not just in the investigation, but how it spills over into their personal lives. The psychological aspects of the case are brought to us and we begin to appreciate the many nuances that may life at the heart of any event.

The novel also highlights issues such as father-son relationships and child sexual abuse in a sensitive manner.

Starting from a time in the past, described as Yesterday in the Prologue, the chapters encompass many events from Wednesday through Sunday, until the Epilogue takes us to today, a point six months later.

The Prologue comes to life and one gets an idea of how the novel led up to that one point.

At first, I could not understand the meaning of the title, but by the middle of the novel, awareness had dawned painfully. The Summer of Dead Toys referred to the insidious practice of looking upon children as playthings meant to satisfy the twisted desires of a perverted adult.

A richly layered novel. This one is worth reading.

    "Blogging for Books provided this book to me for free in exchange for an honest review."


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