Monday, 22 February 2016

Review: The Things They Didn't Bury by Laekan Zea Kemp

3 stars

Assigning a star rating to The Things They Didn't Bury has been hard. I have such drastically different feelings about different aspects of this book, it's hard to weigh them up and shape them into a coherent whole. The story was good, as was the recreation of war-torn and recovering Argentina, but the central relationship was mediocre and the writing and characterisation were mixed bags. 

The Things They Didn't Bury follows Liliana, who returns to her homeland of Argentina with her father and sister in the early 1990s (by my guess - a date is never given), after fleeing to the US during the Dirty War. Liliana's mother, Isabella, was one of los desaparecidos - the disappeared - who were arrested by the military junta and never heard from again. For Liliana, returning to the property where Isabella grew up is a chance to learn more about her mother, and she enlists Diego, the son of the property's caretaker, to help her. Interspersed throughout the novel are Isabella's diary entries and narration of the events leading up to her arrest, so that it becomes the story of both mother and daughter, of the intensification and aftermath of  the war.

It's meant to be all-consuming - and at times it is - but it could have been far more so if it had been proof-read more thoroughly. I understand indie authors work under different constraints, but the difference between their/there/they're and your/you're is fairly fundamental and it is extremely hard for the reader to ignore the wrong one being used. Every time I came across such a misuse - and there were many - it pulled me out of the narrative, and made me more aware of other errors (such as conscious instead of conscience) and the writing style as a whole. 

Perhaps this explains why I found the writing to be very variable in quality. In some places, it was beautiful and lyrical, while in others it was an odd combination of too descriptive and not descriptive enough. In one instance, a tree is described at length, but I couldn't work out where the characters were, relative to the tree. There was also some confusing head hopping, which sometimes lessened the intended emotional impact. 

Nonetheless, The Things They Didn't Bury was still plenty emotional.  The depiction of the war was outstanding, and by far the strongest aspect of the novel. The details of the atrocities committed by the junta, and also its opponents, can be stomach-turning and heart-wrenching, but they are integral to the lives of the characters, so much so that the name of the novel is taken from one particularly inhumane practice. The junta would get rid of dissidents/activists/anyone who looked at them sideways by throwing their weighted (but still alive) bodies out of a plane into the sea. The psychological scars this caused to those left behind, and those who witnessed the planes drop their 'cargo' are touched on in the book, and in more detail in this 2013 article by the BBC

While Liliana escaped witnessing most of the war, first because she was too young to remember and then because she was in the US, Diego saw it all, including the plane drops. He had so much potential as a character, and yet he's pretty much just a stoic cardboard cut-out who exists to drive Liliana places and provide a shoulder for her to cry on. While we hear of his experiences during the war, they are imbued with little emotion and often are relayed only so that Liliana understands the context of something. He always followed Liliana's lead, even when he knew she was dragging him into something dangerous. I held some resentment toward her for being so stupid and headstrong, but as I'm writing this, I realise that it was Diego who understood the potential ramifications of their actions, and who should have spoken up. I guess it's a sign of devotion to her that he didn't, but getting yourself and your potential girl into near-death scenarios isn't really very cool either, for all it moves the plot forward. 

Diego's passiveness contributed to the overall lacklustre relationship between himself and Liliana. There was a curious lack of conflict between the two of them, partly because Diego just did whatever Liliana wanted to do, without comment. This, along with the absence of any romantic intimacy, meant the romance was less than satisfactory for me. Don't get me wrong, YA romances with little actual physical interaction between the characters can be very fulfilling, but The Things They Didn't Bury didn't have the deeper connection or sense of longing between the characters that is usually used as a substitute for physical intimacy in YA, and without this the declarations of love at the end felt forced and premature. 

Although the romance reader in me found the central relationship and HFN were lacking, on an intellectual level I recognise that the absence of a concrete HEA reflects the uncertain times the characters have lived through, and ways in which they are unable to find closure. The book's lack of moral justice also made it uncomfortable for me, but this too reflects the reality. Few people have been held to account for their actions during the war, and, as a result, my impression is that Argentine society bears a wound that might have scabbed over, but certainly hasn't healed.

To top off that piece of postmodern nihilism, I'm going to say this is a case in which the rating at the top of the page means absolutely nothing. Overall, I would recommend The Things They Did Not Bury for people who would be interested in learning more about the Dirty War, but not for those who are simply looking for a romance with a different setting, because it is a exploration of war first and a romance second. Regardless of my ambivalent feelings towards story itself, it did provide a unique opportunity to learn more about something I knew very little about, and I'm grateful for that. 

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