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It is a tasty morsel to be savored slowly and patiently. What stands out, above all, is the purity and splendor of the writing.

Book Review: Three Novellas by Sandra Shwayder Sanchez

Sandra Shwayder Sanchez continues to prove herself as a powerful voice in the serious, literary scene. Her latest book, Three Novellas, is a darkly compelling work filled with complex characters, vibrant images, and sparklingly insightful prose.

Each novella depicts the lives of various characters and their connections to one another. Sometimes the connections are because of family ties; sometimes because fate ironically brings their lives together. The novellas are about the journeys, either conscious or unconscious, that the characters take, while seemingly they roam aimlessly, lost in a vastness that’s too large for them to figure out.

In “The Last Long Walk of Noah Brown,” we meet Noah, a kind and innocent soul in a world of evil. Though he’s not aware of it, Noah is developmentally disabled, a person who is “too innocent for the guilty world.” (29) Noah is the product of incest, a fact he learns from his mother later in life. He begins his journey in Annapolis in 1965, and we go through his ups and downs (a lot more downs than ups) all the way to New Orleans in 2007.

During his journey he meets many people, some good, others evil. He learns and experiences many things, including the carnal love of a woman. He develops a close, warm relationship with his mother, whom he had always believed to be his sister. Most intriguing of all, Noah has an ambitious dream – to build an ark (he sees this as his destiny, having being named ‘Noah’) and save people and animals from a flood. In New Orleans, he finally lives to see his dream come true.

“The Last Long Walk of Noah Brown” is filled with vivid images, at times touching, at times dark. All throughout, however, there is a quiet atmosphere of sadness, doom, and helplessness. The story has the tone of a fable. Some segments are dream-like and sparkle with beautiful, sensuous writing.

Noah started walking to the water, watching its oily darkness, the soft sound of it lapping up against the sides of the boat. The moon glimmered on the water, a mother watching him, and he stared at it for hours mesmerized and soothed. Eventually he had to leave, go back home, he couldn’t stay here forever, watching the moon’s reflection on the water…unless… he did nothing that first night by the water. He returned every night and stared at the moon until it had grown from a silver crescent to a large full round moon and it was simply too lovely to leave so he looked for a way into the water, and finally jumped, shocked by the coldness of it, the breath knocked out of him and he let himself sink, stopped breathing even before he was completely under and passed out. (34-35)

Sanchez accomplishes a marvelous rhythm and cadence by combining short sentences with very long, run-on sentences. At times her paragraphs are made up of only one long sentence, a la Garcia Marquez. Although this can be annoying with some writers, Sanchez seems to have a talent for it.

In “The King and the Clockmaker,” the author examines the origins of evil and the meaning of time. The story itself is a nightmarish dream – a dream the narrator consciously has in order to avoid the pain of loss, and the random, senseless violence of the real world. In this dream, which reads like a sinister fairytale, there are two main characters, the king and the clockmaker.

The clockmaker builds the most magnificent clock for the king, who’s always been obsessed with time. Afterwards, however, the king sears the clockmaker’s eyes with molten iron. Thus begins their disturbing relationship, for the kind clockmaker is set on getting his revenge, and the terrible king, in some ill way, seeks his forgiveness. As they come to know each other, bonded by the infamous clock, truths emerge about the king, his childhood, and his gruesome nature. They become oddly dependant on one another until the king’s demise. Afterwards, the clockmaker’s journey continues, a journey that takes him through many pathways.

This novella in particular is filled with complex metaphors and allegories, and some scenes shine with vivid, haunting imagery. More poignant segments include the king killing a bird, then impaling it to bury it; or another even more lingering, the king happily lying under the bleeding body of his servant, whom he has just stabbed to death, and afterwards needing three bronze tubs of fresh water to cleanse himself of all the blood.

Sanchez also uses elements of magical realism to add intricacy and symbolism to the writing, as in the scene where a woman is turned into a stone and later on, when someone splits the stone, the woman’s heart is found inside it. She also gives forest animals preternatural attributes, as in the case of the buck and the mountain lion, thus adding to the magical realism effect.

The dream in this novella is an allegory of the perverse cruelty of the world, of “the accumulation of violence that is everywhere around us.” (109) “ However vast the expanse of time and space that surrounds us,” reflects the narrator, “every soul entrapped in a human body is trapped in a cell with the poisonous snake of violence coiled in a corner ready to strike.” (109)

In the last novella, “The Vast Darkness,” we meet Sara, a young student of anthropology who, temporarily, takes residence in the mountains to study the influence of isolated mountain living upon its residents. She soon becomes acquainted with Robert, a sinister young man who arouses fear in people and who enjoys manipulating them into committing ‘evil’ acts.

He’s like the devil himself, whispering words into the characters’ ears, tempting and gently provoking until murder and violence ensue. Without meaning to, Sara causes a man — a good man who’s committed murder to avenge the crime committed against his young, innocent daughter — to go to prison. Afterwards, Robert softly coaxes this man to take revenge against Sara.

As with the other novellas, this one also deals with the concepts of evil and violence and how they are inherent in all of us, a theme that often surfaces in Sanchez’s works. “I think God made us in his image and God has a mean streak a mile wide is what I think,” (131) says Robert to Sara.

Dreams, often violent, are always an element used by this author to add insight and symbolism to the writing. Sanchez also enjoys including wild animals in the story, not only as tools for magical realism, but to somehow show the paradox of the beauty and brutality that is nature – another one of her recurrent themes.

Three Novellas isn’t an easy read. For the average reader, it is a challenge. For the sophisticated booklover, it is a tasty morsel to be savored slowly and patiently in order to absorb all it has to offer. What stands out, above all, is the purity and splendor of the writing. Sanchez’s works are rare delicacies.

About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.

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