'Cellophane': Life in an Amazon Factory Town
NOAH ADAMS, host:
From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.
Cellophane is the title of a new novel by writer Marie Arana. Its story transports the reader to a mill town deep into the rainforest in Peru. Book critic Veronique de Turenne has this review.
Ms. VERONIQUE DE TURENNE (Book critic): Gertrude Stein once wrote that each time she encountered genius: a bell within me rang. Reading Marie Arana's lush and luxuriant first novel Cellophane, you hear bells enough for a cathedral. Arana sets her tale in her native Peru. She starts us out in the early 1900s on the coast where we meet Don Victor, a brilliant engineering student obsessed with the idea of making paper in the Amazon jungle.
A few pages and several decades later, Arana drops us into the rainforest. It's 1952 and Don Victor, now in his 60s, is living that youthful dream. He has built Floralinda, a thousand acre estate with a three-story mansion for his wife and children and grandchildren, a village full of workers, and a factory that turns raw hemp into sturdy brown paper.
Don Victor has just mastered the art of making cellophane, which he reveals at the funeral for a young boy whose odd death is an omen of strange things to come. Arana writes, it looked like fabric, but seemed to be lighter than air. As the paper wafted down and lit on the boy's white shirt, it opened, caught the dawn and shimmered, capturing the glow of the sun; the blue of the dead, the rose of Graciela's lips, the gray in Belen's gaze, the green of new hemp, the ochre of skin. It was a transitory thing. A flash of light snatched and spun into a fleeting kaleidoscope.
Not so fleeting are the three plagues that soon descend on Floralinda. In the plague of tongues, the people of Floralinda reveal their deepest thoughts and darkest secrets. A priest admits a love affair. A husband rejects his marriage. And soon, even the most casual of conversations veer into stark confession.
During a plague of hearts, alliances form and marriages rupture. By the time a plague of revolution descends, the plantation is falling apart. Even in the resulting chaos, a complete and utter revolt by Floralinda's workers, Arana's kind heart keeps us safe.
It takes a skilled hand to steer a tale so vast and circuitous. Stories beget stories that turn into still more stories. All eventually leading somewhere, taking their own sweet time. There's a profound love of land and family on display. As well as frankly sensual body and just plain sexy scenes that make quoting some of Cellophanes most gorgeous language impossible.
Sins are forgiven. Weakness and unkindness find understanding. It's this generosity that keeps us from flinching as our favorite characters face betrayal or peril, or even doom.
Arana doesn't end the book so much as she ejects us from it, sending us back into our clunking time-bound universe. Don Victor and his family, we are told, move on to new adventures and we must carry on with our own. But having journeyed through Marie Arana's Cellophane, we return changed by the wealth of imagery, language, and magic that fill its pages.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
The book is Marie Arana's Cellophane. Our reviewer is Los Angeles writer Veronique de Turenne. For more summertime reading just go to npr.org.
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