Idra Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear*, defies easy categorization. It’s part mystery, part literary meditation, part romance, part comedy—and all brilliant. I loved it.
Beatriz Yagoda, acclaimed Brazilian novelist with a fondness for cigars and online gambling, one day climbs an almond tree (cigar and suitcase in hand) and vanishes, leaving no word of her intentions with her two children, Raquel and Marcus, or with her American translator, a young woman named Emma.
“For so long, she’d willfully sought the in-between. She’d thought of herself as fated to live suspended, floating between two countries, in the vapor between languages. But too much vaporous freedom brought its own constraints. She now felt as confined by her floating state as other, more wholesome people were to the towns where they were born.”
After learning of the disappearance, Emma leaves Pittsburgh (and her fiancè, Miles) for Brazil, where an encounter with a violent loan shark is just the first sign that she’s in way over her head. Her presence isn’t exactly welcome by her author’s children, and she’s searching for Beatriz based clues from her books. Meanwhile, Beatriz may be leaving cryptic breadcrumbs for her wealthy and world-weary first publisher, Rocha, who begins a parallel search for the enigmatic writer.
It’s a wonderful setup for a novel, and Ms. Novey’s writing is top-notch. The heat of Brazil’s cities radiates from the page, her descriptions expertly woven from choice details (“a tall glass shipwrecked on the bar in a spill of caipirinha”). The glimpses of Beatriz’s own writing (mediated through Emma’s translations) are astoundingly unexpected and savagely beautiful, perhaps informed by Ms. Novey’s own work as a translator and poet. Brief chapters—the longest is four pages, I believe—are interspersed with modified dictionary entries, e-mail messages, and Brazilian news reports, giving this short book rapid-fire energy.
About her work with Beatriz, Emma thinks, “She’d remember a morning in Rio as no more than an orange glow over the ocean and use that light to illuminate the strange, dark boats of Beatriz’s images as she ferried them into English.”
What a metaphor. I highly recommend Ways to Disappear—you’ll want to ferried on this strange boat yourself.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.