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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What I'm Reading: Prayers for the Stolen

Earlier this summer I was helping out at the Circulation desk when a patron returned Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, and could not stop gushing about it. So I grabbed it for myself and immediately read it.

And am I sure glad I did.

Prayers for the Stolen  is narrated by a captivating, smart, funny, and strong young woman, Ladydi Garcia Martinez.  Yes, she is named for Lady Diana, which leads to some funny scenes spread throughout the book.

Ladydi lives up in a mountain village in Guerro, Mexico, not far from Acapulco.  In Guerro, the men have all left for better opportunities in America and those who are left work for the drug kingpins.  Life is harsh for the women left behind on the mountain.  Bodies are dumped in their neighborhood with regualrity, drive by shooting happen all the time, even the natural world is harsh, full of bugs, snakes, scorpions, and the repeated spraying of chemicals from government helicopters to kill the fields of drugs growing all over the mountain. [These poisons rain down without warning].

But the biggest problem of all is that the worst thing a young girl can be int he village is beautiful because the pretty girls are stolen and taken to live in the compounds of the drug lords and are used for their bodies.  So Ladydi, her friend,s and their mothers are always trying to come up with ways to make the girls look ugly.

Now, I understand that from this description, Prayers for the Stolen sounds depressing.  But trust me it is a beautiful book.  That's why plot summaries are often not enough to give you the feel of a book.  So that's what I am going to do now.

Why you would want to read this book: First and foremost, this is a character driven story. Ladydi is spirited and determined, but NOT in that "plucky" way that can sometimes annoy readers.  Rather she is honest and inquisitive.  She understands her situation, but is also willing to question how messed up it is.  She is self aware and critical, but also adventurous and caring.

This book is also the story of her journey from a child living with her mother on the mountain, to moving to Acapulco to be the nanny for a rich family, to something happening that I don't want to give away but pulls every thread of the story together and from which Ladydi emerges as an adult ready to face the world head on. She will no longer cower in the mountains trying to hide her beauty (both inner and outer).

But it's not just Ladydi who is a great character here.  All the women on the mountain, and the other women Ladydi encounters in that third act of the story are richly drawn and interesting.

This is a book you are reading for the characters

The tone and writing style of this novel are also striking.  This is a haunting and gritty tale, but it is told in a lyrical way.  Clement is an amazing writer who lives in Mexico and was the President of PEN Mexico for a few years.  Her mastery of the technique of writing a compelling and beautiful story with fantastic characters is awe inspiring. Her writing captured me and brought me into Ladydi's world.

The frame was also extremely interesting.  We know about the horrors of the drug trade on the people of Mexico from the news, but to be put into the intimate world of one small mountain village, and then even more focused, into the life of 1 young woman was an appeal for me. Also, the hopelessness of village life juxtaposed by the excess in Acapulco was powerful.

The pacing was also very fast for the complexity of the story.  Again, I think this is a testament to Clements technical skill, but we are talking about a literary fiction title, with intense and serious topics that moves steadily and surprisingly quickly.  One factor I think is Ladydi.  But also, it is the three part structure of the story-- part 1 in the mountain village, part 2 working in Acapulco, part 3...as I said you have to read it to find out-- that keeps you turning the pages.

The ending is open, but triumphant.  Ladydi is finally in charge of herself and her future, but what exactly will happen to her, we can’t know for sure. But what is even more striking about the ending here is that Clement manages to tie up all of the loose ends of the story and make them important to everything that happens. This is hard for many authors to do; in fact, I get complaints from readers when authors do NOT managed to accomplish this.  This is not an ending that will disappoint, despite the fact that it does not spell out what is next on Ladydi's horizon.

This is a book for people who want to be put into the hands of a captivating narrator and placed into a world outside of your every day existence, but not so foreign that you cannot relate. It is serious, and even sad at times, but ultimately the tone is one of triumph. Ladydi is a survivor and I was happy to spend a couple hundred pages in her company.

Three Words That Describe This Book: haunting, gritty, lyrical

Readalikes: The first book I thought of when reading Prayers for Stolen was Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea which I read and loved. They are both set in Mexican towns where the men have all gone and the drug lords are terrorizing everyone, but they share more than this.  They both feature strong and interesting female characters, and involve a gritty and haunting story that is ultimately uplifting.

Another moving story with a coming of age theme that is haunting, character driven and heartbreakingly beautiful is Canada by Richard Ford. Here the setting is on the US Canada border, but many of the issues and themes are the same.  Click through for details.

Right after I read Canada, I also read The Round House by Louise Erdrich and I also described it as heartbreakingly beautiful. Click here and here for lots more on that novel.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is also a gritty, haunting and lyrical story with female characters facing impossible choices at its center.  Here the setting is Afghanistan.  Click here for my detailed review.

Finally, Ladydi reminded me of June, the young narrator in Tell the Wolves I’m Home by carol Rifka. In my review of that book I mention a colleague saying about this novel, "This was a wonderful book that broke my heart in the best possible way.” That is how I feel about Prayers for the Stolen.

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