We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage

Posted on September 9, 2012


Blood cannot be washed out with blood – Belizean proverb

When someone says ‘x is deceptively complex’, I take it to mean that ‘x’ is, in fact, simple.  However, I’ve recently read that some take it to mean that ‘x’ appears simple but is, in fact, complex – this sort of misunderstanding is very important to sign writers apparently (see footnote one and scream). It’s like those Janus words that are spelled the same but have two opposite meanings such as ‘cleave’.[1] Mind twisting isn’t it? Anyway, why am I going into this now?  Well, on the cover of Zee Edgell’s The Festival of San Joaquin, there’s a quotation from World Literature Today which says that the book is ‘simple and deceptively complex’.  By my reckoning that would mean it was both simple and simple, hence the mind calisthenics.   That said, my mind having exercised its dumbbells, I realized that this ambiguity is relevant to Edgell’s novel.  Oh happy happenstance!  So nice to keep things neatly themed.

The novel is about a peasant girl, Luz Marina, who marries her mistress Doña Catalina’s son, Salvador, bears him three children and becomes the victim of domestic abuse.  Stick with me! I know, you’re thinking ‘Not more misery!’ but we meet Luz Marina, after she is released on probation having killed Salvador (with a machete – a kind of cleaver perhaps?), and the novel is more concerned with her fight to reclaim her children from Doña Catalina and the rebuilding of her life in her small rural community than the anatomy of abuse. By my reckoning it’s deceptively miserable therefore.   Of course, the powerful Doña Catalina tries to ensure that Luz Marina fails at every turn leaving Luz Marina wondering whether she’s as much in prison after release as she was when on remand.  By the end of the novel more blood is spilled, but there is redemption so panic not.

The book, written in the strong clear voice of the main character, cleverly and with a light touch also manages to examine structures of power, and systems of support  (in relation to work, religion, and the environment) without losing sight of Luz Marina’s simple goal of getting back some sense of normality.  In so doing, Edgell deftly deals with the ambiguity of Luz Marina’s view of herself as victim and fighter back – a story she has played out before the opening page and then has to replay throughout the novel.

I fear I’m not doing the novel justice.  It still sounds heavy doesn’t it and yet it’s not.  Imagine a lychee, it has a heady smell, tastes overly perfumed, yet is still light and sweet and doesn’t sit heavy in the mouth.    This is what The Festival of San Joaquin is like. It’s a Janus novel, deceptively simple and deceptively complex.

[1] Here’s a selection, if you’re interested, taken from wiki:

  • ‘Apparent’ can mean ‘obvious’ or ‘seeming, but in fact not’.
  • ‘To buckle’ can mean ‘to fasten’ … or ‘to bend then break’.
  • ‘Fast’ can mean ‘moving quickly’ … or ‘not moving’ as in ‘stuck fast.’
  • ‘Off’ can mean ‘deactivated’ as in “to turn off”, or ‘activated’ as in ‘the alarm went off’.
  • ‘To sanction’ means ‘to permit’, and also ‘to punish’.
  • ‘Shelled” can mean ‘having a shell’ or ‘has had the shell removed’ (as in shelling).
  • ‘To weather’ can mean ‘to endure’ (as in a storm) or ‘to erode’ (as in a rock).
  • ‘Weedy’ can mean ‘overgrown’ … or stunted ‘The boy looks weedy’.
  • ‘Yield’ can mean ‘to produce’ … or ‘to concede’.