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A good book reviewer knows that a spoiler is a no-no, so it's deliciously thrilling when you can give away the ending of a novel and get away with it. It's also a bold undertaking on the part of the author and a book that starts with a great ending creates high expectations. Fortunately Andrew Nicoll does not disappoint.
"Only a few weeks after it has happened, Luciano Hernando Valdez was almost unable to believe that he had ever been a murderer."
It's almost unthinkable that a novel could have such an instantly engaging first line. It's not unreasonable from the book's title - "The Love and Death of Caterina" - to expect that it is she who dies so thoughts turn immediately to how and why. Then there's that tantalising 'almost' that suggests that perhaps Caterina's death was inevitable, that Luciano knew he would kill her.
The story takes place in an unnamed South American country, a dictatorship and police state. Celebrated author and university professor, Luciano Hernando Valdez is a hero of his country and lives a lifestyle most people in the country could only dream of. His lavish apartment is decorated with the latest in designer furniture; he drives an expensive sports car and hangs out at the polo club. On the surface it looks like a pretty perfect life but Valdez has developed writer's block and the pressure of trying to come up with a new novel starts to tell.
Then he meets Caterina, a mathematics student at the university. Struck by her beauty Valdez pursues her, believing that she will be the key that unlocks his inability to write. It doesn't take long, though, for Valdez to notice that Caterina isn't what he thought she was and before long he murders her.
When a novelist is bold enough to start at the end there has to be something good in between to keep the reader engaged until the last page and Nicoll supplies on several counts. Foremost is the superb character development. Sometimes this comes from a detached third person narrative but as we see characters through the eyes of others the portraits become beautifully layered. Dr. Cochrane, a colleague of Valdez is a great example of how this works; at first he comes across as a comic character but gradually it becomes clear that there is much more to this seemingly boastful little man. From the esteemed and respected author to whom others come for advice, Valdez is then shown to be a carefree womaniser, a man with much in the way of material things but very little in the way of values. A back story of a father who disappeared when Valdez was a child coupled with the unexplained interest of the local police chief in Valdez and his mother adds another interesting dimension to the story.
Told in short chapters with each one adding a new detail that leads to the anticipated conclusion, the story unfolds in a pleasing but often surprising way. I was reminded of Antonio Tabbuchi's "Pereira Maintains" set in Portugal in the 1930s, in which the reader knows from the outset that something grave has taken place and the narrative gradually pieces together the events that led to Pereira's statement. There are also nods to Graham Green both in terms of the setting and in the insights into the characters. Nicoll captures not only the physical aspects of the setting - one can almost taste the gasoline tinted air as Valdez sits in his car on a humid summer's day, or smell the fresh coolness of the polo fields - but the underlying atmosphere of suspicion and subterfuge.
What I really loved about "The Love and Death of Caterina" is how much it feels like a translated novel - and I mean that in an entirely positive way. The character are so anchored in their setting that they simply have to be there; this isn't a story that had a location chosen for it, the characters feel like they already existed in their setting before Nicoll created their story. Sometimes the clunkiness of a translation can give the impression that the characters exist independent of their location but here the two are irretrievably connected so this novel has a very authentic tone but doesn't have the awkwardness that it might if it was a translation.
"The Love and Death of Caterina" is a witty, colourful and technically excellent novel that should appeal to most fans of the thriller genre but it offers so much more. One of my reads of the year so far.
Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a review copy.