The Children by Andrea Lee, 2019
The magic trick:
Using a series of melodramatic plot points as backdrop, not foreground
The early portion of “The Children” leads you to believe that you’re in for a fast-paced movie-of-the-week thriller. We’re on a small island of Madagascar, where a serial killer is on the loose. And if that weren’t enough, we also have a case of a mystery inheritance that may or may not belong to a couple of orphans who are rumored to have family ties to mysterious Italian man.
Remarkably, the story immediately leans hard away from those potentially melodramatic plot points. It’s more interested in the portraying and analyzing of characters and feelings.
The crazy soap opera of plot introduced at the story’s outset prove only to be backdrop not foreground.
And that’s quite a trick on Lee’s part.
“What a stunning girl,” Giustinia remarks, as she and Shay chase flies from a sticky table on the veranda and settle themselves where they can keep an eye on the baskets of vegetables and bread in the back of the pickup.
“Yes,” Shay says. “She’s half Italian.” And, acting in her role as exasperated hostess—for, during the week with Giustinia, there has been no rococo tropical sunset, no rare lemur or chameleon, no gaudy market stall, no fluorescent coral or blinding expanse of beach that has dispelled her guest’s queenly, slightly bored air of expecting something more—Shay sketches out the story of Harena, which is a sort of legend on Anjavavy.
The girl is presently about eighteen years old. Her father, Leandro, is a heroin addict from a noble Roman family, a family that shipped him off to Madagascar when he was in his early twenties. For a few years, he lived on rum and drugs out in the bush at the north of the island with Heloise, a Sakalava seamstress, and during this time Harena was born. When Harena was three or four years old, Leandro’s father died, and Leandro returned to Italy, where he’d inherited an estate in what Melville once called the “accursed Campagna” of Rome.
He soon cut off contact and stopped sending money, and when Heloise, who had taken up with a French merchant from Saint Grimaud, perished suddenly after a miscarriage, the girl was left at the mercy of her grandmother, who wasted no time in settling her gray-eyed, barely pubescent granddaughter with Hans, an affable middle-aged German, who sold construction materials. Shay first saw Harena with him one Saturday night, when the girl must have been about fifteen, standing forlornly on the crowded concrete dance floor of Tonga Soa, clutching a large vinyl handbag, while Hans cavorted in a karaoke show onstage. Harena, even then, was extraordinarily pretty, with fawn-colored hair and skin, long spindly legs, acerbic breasts, and a beauty mark beside an arched nose that looked as if it belonged on an ancient marble statue in a museum thousands of miles away.
Shay is warming to the subject when Giustinia suddenly interrupts. “Wait!” she exclaims, and then, incredibly, adds, “I know this story. I didn’t remember that it happened here. I know him—Leandro. The father.”
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