Review: 'It Would Be Night In Caracas,' By Karina Sainz Borgo Karina Sainz Borgo's novel follows a woman dealing with the death of her mother while trying to escape the violence and scarcity gripping Venezuela — an anarchy the book presents in shocking detail.
NPR logo 'It Would Be Night In Caracas' Mourns A Mother And A Country

Review

Book Reviews

'It Would Be Night In Caracas' Mourns A Mother And A Country

The grieving of a mother and of a country. That is what, in a nutshell, It Would Be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo, translated by Elizabeth Bryer, is about.

In Caracas, Venezuela, Adelaida Falcón has just buried her mother, a process that is made even more difficult by the explosive violence and scarcity gripping her country. People are routinely arrested and tortured, supermarket shelves are empty, the black market flourishes selling anything from medication to sanitary napkins, and blackouts are a regular occurrence. When thugs take over Adelaida's home, she discovers her neighbor dead in the apartment next door. If she can impersonate the neighbor, she might be able to get out of the country using the dead woman's Spanish passport.

Told like this, the novel sounds like a tense case of The Talented Mr. Ripley, but set in South America. Be warned: It's not really a thriller. The book is too quiet and small for that, and does not seem interested in turning into a suspense novel. This, partially, gives the feeling that things are a bit too easy when it comes to Adelaida's escape. She just happens to wander into an apartment with an open door, happens to find a corpse inside, the dead woman happens to have just left behind all the documents Adelaida might need to assume her identity. In that sense, this is no Hollywood movie and there are few, if any, surprises.

On the other hand, where It Would Be Night in Caracas does feel like a movie is in the descriptions of a city in chaos; Sainz Borgo presents violence and anarchy in minute and shocking detail.

She also pays loving and close attention to the relationship between mother and daughter, to the daily life before strife broke out in Venezuela, and spends many pages ruminating on the issues of immigration and finding one's home. The novel's original title is The Spanish Woman's Daughter, which reflects the constant thoughts of the protagonist about the European immigrants who established themselves in Latin America when it was full of opportunity, and how their children now desperately seek to return to Europe.

Unfortunately, Sainz Borgo doesn't lend nearly as much space to considerations about colorism and classism, and how they fed into the political circumstances that plunged Venezuela into economic ruin. Adelaida seems to view herself with a lofty superiority because she is an editor and former journalist who loves books and dreamily recalls all things European (an old house, the Italian shoe store where her mother shopped, a set of nice dishes), never quite pausing to consider the oppression, scarcity and poverty that has fueled the wave of violence she is living through. But this myopia is somewhat understandable, considering that Adelaida seems to exist in an interior world, a tiny capsule built for two: It's Adelaida and her mother against the universe, until Adelaida is left alone. And it is when Adelaida retreats inwards that the book feels the most poignant and raw.

Yet, because of this interiority, Sainz Borgo's account of the terror gripping the nation feels amorphous. Rather than a political conflict, this could be a zombie apocalypse for all we know — and we know very little, especially considering Adelaida is a well-read, well-informed woman.

Though these might seem serious gripes, I found the language in the book to be poetic; it kept me reading, immersed in the beauty of the prose. It Would Be Night in Caracas is a painful, angry book, full of melancholy and rage at the loss of a woman's nation.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an award-winning author and editor. Her most recent novel is Gods of Jade and Shadow. She tweets at @silviamg.