In the window of a passing train: Faces In the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

“All novels lack something or someone. In this novel there’s no one. No one except a ghost that I used to see sometimes in the subway.”

Faces in the Crowd, the debut novel from the young Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli, is indeed a book of ghosts. The narrator is a young wife and mother living in Mexico City. As she tries to carve out time and space to write a novel, she draws the reader into a reflective exploration of ghosts – the ghosts that haunt her present house, the ghost of a life she fell into living and working in New York City, and the ghost of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Latin American poet who lived in Harlem in the late 1920s.

And for a book of ghosts it is brilliantly, shockingly alive.

crowdThe novel opens with a deceptively simple narrative feel. Contemporary domestic life is played out against her reflections on her past life in New York City when she was younger, unencumbered and working as a translator for a small independent publisher. She catalogues the friends and lovers that drifted through her spare apartment. One day she happens to encounter the work of Gilberto Owen on a search for potential material for translation, but before long her professional interest turns into an obsession. She tries to pass off her translations of his work as translations by a better known poet, an attempt that comes dangerously close to succeeding. She rescues a dead plant from the roof of the building he once lived in. She imagines that she sees him in the subway – more than once. Finally it is clear to her that she must leave:

“In the subway, on my way home, I saw Owen for the last time. I believe he waved to me. But by then it did not matter, I’d lost my enthusiasm. Something had broken. the ghost, it was obvious, was me.”

For all the empty space in her earlier life, married life is clearly suffocating our narrator. She continually finds herself unable to breathe, struggling to focus on her writing in a large house, cluttered with toys, distracted by the demands of her children – simply referred to as “the boy” and “the baby” – and the jealous curiosity of her architect husband. As the fictionalized first person account of Owen’s life begins to assume a greater prominence within the story, her marriage starts to unravel (or perhaps she simply writes her husband into the background) while the overall narrative structure seems to disintegrate, boundaries blur. The novel within the novel becomes enmeshed with her day-to-day life, folding back on and re-envisioning the experiences recounted from her earlier life in New York. Or was that Owen’s life?

Echoing the continually reshaped game of hide and seek between mother and son running throughout this novel, Faces in the Crowd lays out a metafictional game of hide and seek. Can a horizontal novel be told vertically? How is such a story to be read? Where in translation does truth lie? And when can you play with truth? It winds up to a delightfully oblique ending. Or lack of ending – rather, an invitation to imagine, to reread.

I opened this book completely unprepared for the heart-stopping luminosity of the prose or the way that the narrative is fragmented and rebuilt to create a rich meditation on the nature of story telling. Valeria Luiselli demonstrates a maturity and confidence that belies her age without ever falling into a heavily somber tone. The translation by Christina MacSweeney maintains the lively, poetic flow of this impressive debut. I was pleasantly surprised by this intelligent and enjoyable read.

Faces in the Crowd has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award (BTBA).

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney                Coffee House Press, 2014

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

22 thoughts on “In the window of a passing train: Faces In the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli”

    1. It is very readable in fact. You would probably enjoy it. Having some really bizarre stuff on my To-Be-Read pile this is actually playful and fun. And her voice is so bright. (I’ll bring my ereader along when I visit).

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  1. A great review of a challenging but fascinating book rough ghosts. You made a better fist of reviewing it than I did. It was recommended to me by Stu (of Winston’s Dad as you’d know). It’s one of those books I’d be happy to read again.

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    1. There is such a tendency to try to over write a review of a book like this. It is complicated but I found the voice so fresh and engaging that it was not difficult to read, but it does welcome a return visit. And to think she was all of 28 when this book was first published in Spanish! A talent to watch.

      Oh and you’ll be proud of me. Focusing on so much more translated work lately is greatly improving the ratio of female authors in my recent and planned reading (even if women are still under represented among translated works in general).

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    2. I read this book because of your review, Sue! Although to be truthful, I may not have done so if I hadn’t been going to Mexico for the Easter holidays – I wanted to read some books by Mexican writers. Anyway, I really enjoyed it and am still thinking about it. I agree with roughghosts that the fragmented structure and ‘oblique ending’ invites a reread. Currently reading Down the Rabbit Hole which is fun.

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  2. Great review. I loved this book when I read it a couple of years ago, definitely one for the reread list. I like how you’ve described it as an exploration of ghosts; there’s an ethereal quality to the story and the narrator’s life.

    Luiselli’s collection of essays, Sidewalks, is excellent too (there’s a review at mine if you’re interested). She’s a wonderful writer.

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    1. Thanks! I had no idea what to expect. From the description I was not sure I would enjoy it so much. I was unprepared for the freshness of the voice and the philosophical depth of the novel. I will check out Sidewalks too.

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  3. Yes, this is a good one (I was surprised it was eligible for this year’s BTBA as the two books came out at the same time in the UK, a couple of years back.). Hoping to get to the next one soon – if I can con someone into giving me a copy 😉

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    1. The gap between release dates is significant in some cases. The plus side is that books that might have slipped by unnoticed by some get a second boost and reach a new group of readers. Sad though that a North American writer was published in the UK so long before publication over here.

      She is also riding a wave of exciting releases of Mexican writers coming into release/translation. Very cool.

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      1. This is an area I am exploring. The only other new translation I have read to date is Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yurri Herrera. The pubisher, And Other Stories, has some other Mexican novels due to come out I believe. This link includes some new releases and some I am sure you will know: http://scottishbooktrust.com/reading/book-lists/10-mexican-novels-in-translation
        The Guardian podcast (which I have not listened to yet) also focuses on Mexican lit: http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/apr/17/mexican-literature-enrique-krauze-valeria-luiselli-yuri-herrera-jorge-volpi-podcast

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  4. Thank you so much for these links. Will have to keep an eye on what’s happening in London re the Mexico focus this year. Of the list have only read Like Water for Chocolate (when it was first translated) and this week Down the Rabbit Hole, so have plenty now to keep me busy!

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    1. I am in Canada so sometimes there can be a gap of years between books being available, one way or the other. Valeria Luiselli was news to me but my UK and Oz contacts seem to know all about her! You would think in North America we would have heard of her earlier…

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  5. Nicely done. I do seem to have failed to connect with this book as you saw at mine. Sometimes of course that’s the way.

    Referring to the boy as “the boy” didn’t really work for me – it felt writerly rather than real. I’ve picked up the essays though and I hope to connect better with them.

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