It begins with a call in the middle of snowy February evening. Lying in her bed, young Sylvie Mason overhears her parents on the phone across the hall. This is not the first late-night call they have received, since her mother and father have an uncommon occupation, helping "haunted souls" find peace. And yet, something in Sylvie senses that this call is different than the rest, especially when they are lured to the old church on the outskirts of town. Once there, her parents disappear, one after the other, behind the church's red door, leaving Sylvie alone in the car. Not long after, she drifts off to sleep only to wake to the sound of gunfire.
Nearly a year later, we meet Sylvie again struggling with the loss of her parents, and living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened the previous winter.
As the story moves back and forth in time, through the years leading up to the crime and the months following, the ever inquisitive and tender-hearted Sylvie pursues the mystery, moving closer to the knowledge of what occurred that night, as she comes to terms with her family's past and uncovers secrets that have haunted them for years.
I read this book to fill the “Haunted Houses” square of my 2017 Halloween Bingo card.
As in any good ghost story, there is a lot of ambiguity in this tale of family strife and striving. Can Sylvie’s father see ghosts or not? What are her mother’s capabilities? Are they helping people or just fooling their clients and themselves?
Sylvie is a typical “good kid.” She is co-operative, obedient, studious—even when she doesn’t want to be any of those things. And her sister Rose is the typical “bad kid.” She questions everything, does what she wants to, and makes life as miserable as possible for the rest of the family. Rose and their father clash a lot—probably because they are a lot alike. That’s generally how these things work. My father & I butted heads occasionally because we were both quiet people with strong ideas and more that our share of stubbornness. Other than that, I was pretty much the stereotypical good kid, so I could relate to Sylvie quite well.
I had to wonder about what kind of person would choose a career of helping those with supernatural difficulties. Why would you put your own family into such a situation, where your own children often took a backseat to the children of others? It’s almost a truism that preacher’s kids will get in trouble, often as a way to plead for attention from their parents and that seems to hold true with any of the religious & quasi-religious professions.
In the end, it seemed that it maybe wasn’t the house that was haunted, but the family. Haunted by things left unsaid, paths left untrod, people left behind.
This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: "Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?" By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents'; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.
After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.
The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the "discreet hero" label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it's very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they're not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist's teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).
Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art's role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.
Starting with the Carter administration this is a look at how the Democratic party pulled away from its working class base and turned toward the people with money. It gives a history of the change and the affect it had on the middle class and politics up through today. I got mad as I read it and had to put it down several times. I understood what was said. Mr. Frank kept it simple and, at times, humor poked through. I wish I would have been more politically aware when I was younger and understood what was happening and how it would impact me and my world. Worth the read!