Kassabova is not only a travel writer but she is also well respected for her enchanting poetry. It is, therefore, unsurprising that her fiction takes on a magical slant too, even if the novel’s protagonist is the no-nonsense, fact checking travel writer Ute. Ute decides to spend a few days at the Villa Pacifica with her husband Jerry to update her previously published travel guide, but the guesthouse at the dead-end coastal village, run by eccentric idealist Mikel, turns out not to be the peaceful paradise-cum-perfect resort it initially promises to be. From the beginning the strategy of foreshadowing creeps into the writing, causing the reader to stay alert, alarmed and unnerved. None of the suspicions are ever quite put to bed and although they are based on hearsay the discomfort is tangible. It generates a tense atmosphere of which the likes of Poe would have been proud. Eventually the tropical humidity—heavy with intoxicating scent—is blamed for bad dreams, forgetfulness, disjointed memory, lack of rationality and a warped perception of time. Day and night the local fruit sellers barter: Un dolarito las bananas! Dos dolaritos las mandarinas! until everyone seems indeed to go bananas. The fruity madness is amplified by the fact that more and more couples check into the guesthouse, all bringing bags of saturated boredom, midlife-crises and sexual frustrations. Given that the resort offers little distraction, except perhaps the roaring of wild animals from the nearby National Park, a kind of cabin fever spreads among them. The Villa Pacifica itself becomes reminiscent of an animal pen where primitive instincts and brutish force dominate the status quo. The ambiance is as claustrophobic as at Big Brother House only here no one gets evicted. The tension between the guests reaches boiling point, and when the rain sets in a storm warning raises the stakes further.
The writing is remarkably straightforward with an unfettered eloquence that is suggestive of the novels of Isabel Allende. In regard to process, the narration seems to have developed organically as the storytelling takes on a cumulative approach, resulting at times in a slight fragmentation of the overall plot, and the relentless foreshadowing keeps the reader in perpetual darkness about the actual state of affairs. New narrative strands are constantly introduced, creating generous layers of meaning and scope. But the reader is pulled along by the narrator’s clear objectives. It is remarkable how Kassabova manages the sheer number of characters in this story, especially as they are all quite outspoken individuals who tend to move in clusters and are as complex as chameleons. Nevertheless, the novel is slow in getting started and left me unconvinced about Ute’s marital relationship to Jerry, as they seem never more than accidental travel companions with a shared bank account, which slightly undermines the narrative potential of the story’s main plot.
Halfway through a spiritual dimension is adopted; we learn about the local painter Oswaldo who, before retiring to the holy mountain, used to produce canvases summarising people’s lives as if he could see their past, present and future. Oswaldo was assuming God like powers, the narrator informs us, suggesting that the painter’s omnipotent point of view somehow authorised him to interfere with fate. It is certainly no coincidence that the novel itself is structured in three parts like a triptych; outset, middle and possible outcomes. In the middle section Ute also meets a family from the Amazonian tribe of the Achuar who are introducing her to principles of shamanism, offering the travel-guide writer insight and guidance for her spiritual journey. On reaching the final and third part of the story, the reader is best advised to completely suspend disbelief as the concept of reality is deconstructed to the point where time and space become erratic. It seems the protagonist is hitchhiking around the galaxy rather than holidaying at the world’s end, but all this is well presented as a poetic hypostasis.
Villa Pacifica is a refreshingly bold story, tackling a number of taboos without ever forcing an opinion upon us. Centre-stage is the eternal theme of how men and women relate, be it in couples or in society at large. How do we come to assume our roles and define our expectations of our partners? This is also a book about nature and nurture, fact and fiction. From ecology, consumerism and faith to animal trafficking, revolutions and quantum physics—here everything has a place.
This novel adopts elements from different genres without allowing a definitive label to be attached to it. This may also explain why there is so much tension between fact and fiction in this novel. To incorporate and retell personal circumstances in writing to give it a cathartic notion is often found in poetry, most famously in Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes and is also applied by Plath and Sexton etc. Kassabova, being a poet herself, has used elements of the confessional in a powerful, effective and moving manner and has created a colourful triptych of a journey through life.