With her bravura second novel El Nino, writer and academic Nadia Bozak takes readers to the American southwest, unimaginable worlds away from the Ontario backwoods which served as the setting for her debut novel, Orphan Love.
This is not, however, the southwest you will find on any map. Rather, Bozak creates a dreamlike geography rooted in the real but situated between realism and myth, between naturalism and allegory. Her desert, the Oro Desert, is a place of pain and suffering, but also of ambition and hope. It’s a no-man’s-land, a desolate expanse littered with the bodies of the unwise, or the unlucky. To the Oro come the pollos, the young boys seeking the promise of the north, throwing their trust to coyotes who may guide them across the desert, or may turn them over to the bounty hunters who will deposit them back where they started.
And there are also those who choose to live on the edges of the desert, those whom society has rejected, or who choose to reject society. Marianne is one of the latter, an aging woman who has come to the desert to paint, to live out her days on her own terms. Protected by her faithful dog Baez, a shepherd-coyote mix, Marianne leaves food and water out for the pollos, drawing the ire of those who prey upon them.
El Nino unfolds in a dreamlike manner, following three characters, interweaving their stories and – most crucially – their viewpoints.
Honey is Marianne’s daughter, a middle-aged professor who lives in Zopilote, Buzzard City. On a long-delayed trip to visit her mother, she discovers Marianne missing, and a series of encounters and misadventures forces her deep into the desert itself, struggling for survival as her layers of privilege and security are stripped away by the elements and by the human animals of the Oro.
Partway through her journey she encounters Chavez, little more than a child, but a coyote himself, familiar with the ways of the desert but suffering from the loss of his friend Juan.
The third voice of the novel is Baez herself; it is, curiously, the dog who forms the moral and emotional core of the novel.
While the above schema seems relatively straightforward, El Nino is anything but. Rather than telling a single narrative through three voices, the timeline for each of the characters/voices is separate and distinct. For example, the present of Baez’s sections (which begin with the simple declarative “Baez is going to die today”) is not the present of Honey’s struggle to survive the desert. Past and present blur like heat-shimmer in the distance, and meaning builds and accretes with an almost geological shifting.
It must be said: readers may find this approach frustrating, especially early in the novel, when it is unclear what, exactly, is going on. But that, it seems, is precisely the point: the reader’s struggle to understand the text, to create meaning from intersecting, sometimes contradictory voices, mirrors the novel’s larger pursuit of meaning, to find form in the desolation, to find hope in the wild.
When El Nino comes together, both on the page and within the reader, the effect is both shocking and powerful, a testimony to both Bozak’s skills and daring as a writer.
Robert J. Wiersema’s new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.