A memorable, original, well-written book that snagged on a genre boundary inflexibility that I didn’t know I had.
I used to add a tagline to my stories:
‘What you read is not what I wrote. I provide the text. You provide the meaning.’
So I thought I understood that a book isn’t just the text that the author puts on the page, it’s also the expectations assumptions and preferences that the reader brings to the book.
Except, as reading ‘The Invisible Guardian’ showed me, I hadn’t applied this knowledge to my own reading so, instead of being swept along by all the strengths of this book, I reached a point where I tripped over my own inflexible genre boundaries and fell flat on my face.
I delayed writing this review for a week to give myself time to think about this. Towards the end of the book, I was all ‘What just happened here? Where did this go wrong?’ But now I have to acknowledge that the book didn’t go wrong, I did.
A week later, ‘The Invisible Guardian’ is bright in my memory for its strong emotional impact, its distinctive sense of place, its clearly carved characters and the complex relationships between them and its unflinching exploration of a fundamentally abusive relationship between a mother and daughter.
It also works as a solid police procedural pursuit of a serial killer, with a complicated plot and side plots. The politics between and within the different police units are nicely handled and the pacing of the slow reveal of who the killer is was pretty much perfect.
What tripped me up was a supernatural element to the story that I felt didn’t fit. On reflection, the only thing it didn’t fit with was my expectations. I’m happy to read books with supernatural plot elements but I’d labelled ‘The Invisible Guardian’ a police procedural set in the Basque country and so I rejected the supernatural elements as unnecessary and inappropriate.
Yet the story is called, ‘The Invisible Guardian’ so why didn’t I expect there to be one. The story is set in a part of the Basque country famous for its witch trials and its ancient pre-Christian beliefs, so why didn’t I expect witches and pre-Christian beliefs to play a part in the story? From the beginning, the forest and the mountains are almost a character in the story, dominating the village and making its continued existence over centuries into an act of sheer will power. So why had I not expected the spirit of the mountains to be as important as the spirit of the town? Why did I not see that women in the novel, including the Inspector Salazar have had their whole view of how the world works formed by growing up in that valley?
All of this is in the book and I see now that what didn’t work was my reading, not Dolores Dolondo’s writing.
I’ll be back for the rest of this trilogy and this time, I’ll read with my eyes and my mind open.
Below I’ve included the impressions I had of the book as I went along plus some notes on what I think now that I’ve finished the book. If you follow my journey you’ll see where and how I stumbled.
20% I’m not sure what to make of this yet
I’m not sure what to make of this book yet.
I picked it up because it was promoted as the best example of Spanish ‘literary crime fiction’. I also liked that it was set in Baztan and was said to draw on Basque traditions and history.
The premise is the inspector Amaia Salazar is sent back to her home village of Elizondo to investigate an apparent serial killer.
So far, most of the focus has been on Salazar and her family (husband, sisters, aunt, strained childhood relationship with her, now dead, mother,) than on the investigation of the crimes.
I’m glad about this. I’ve become averse to reading books about men killing lots of woman in some bizarre ritual that meets their needs. Too often, they lead to a kind of twisted empathy between the investigator and the killer and the women become plot devices or the raw material for the killer’s ‘art’.
The prose is calm. This doesn’t smell like a thriller. It feels more like a troubled, discontented but successful woman re-examining herself in the mirror presented by returning home in a role that carries authority and brings conflict. I don’t feel I’m really in Salazar’s head yet, although I’d like to be.
I do like the sense of place, particularly that sense of silent sentience you get when you’re alone in an ancient woodland.
Editor’s Note: I should have paid more attention to that silent sentience. Also, this turned out to be a book that was mainly about powerful women and weak men.
30% This is not a standard police procedural and a sidebar on tarot
This is not a standard police procedural. Nor is about a tragic, world-weary DI with dark secrets in her past. It seems that it’s about a deeply intuitive, well-trained investigator being asked to see what is happening in the town she grew up and being challenged to open herself up to the possible reality of things she had long ago dismissed as myths.
It’s very well done. It doesn’t push. It doesn’t use clichès or tropes as a short cut to exposition. It also doesn’t really let me in Salazar’s head. Rather it lets me watch her as closely as someone who knows her well might have the opportunity to do. It presents scenes from her history and shares some of her reactions but it sets me the challenge of reading her.
I’m rather enjoying that. It’s nice when an author has the courage not to present a definitive version of a person. I’m sure there’s no definitive version of me, so why should I believe a definitive version of a fictional character.
Salazar’s aunt reads the Tarot. There is an interesting discussion on what is needed to read the cards. The aunt believes it requires a talent she calls being a ‘super receptor’ and that, for those with the talent, the cards provide a framework for gathering information and presenting a narrative.
This rang true for me. I used to read the tarot and read palms when I was at university. Later I qualified in using various psychometric tests. I found that both of them gave me the same kind of framework for reading people or, more accurately, for helping people read themselves.
Editor’s Note: I can see how I was already dismissing anything more than logic and intuition from what I was reading. I think this was reinforced by the fact that the aunt had a background in psychology but the signs that something else if going on were already there.
50% Some of this is hard to listen to…
…that is, it’s a disturbing listen. The prose is smooth and mostly calm and the characters are described with dispassionate accuracy, so I can start to be lulled into a sort of there’s-nothing-to-worry-about-here mood and then we’ll be back in Salazar’s childhood and her mother will be doing something unpleasant and WHAM the emotion goes from nothing to very distressing.
I’m rolling with it at the moment, but there’d better be a very good reason for these scenes or because if all this is gratuitous, I’ll be very pissed off.
Editor’s Note: It became more disturbing as a it went along. The flip from calm to distressed was actually a way of showing how Inspector Salazar dealt with, or perhaps experienced is better, her childhood trauma. Her mother is truly frightening in this and those scenes burn brightly in my memory but none of them is gratuitous.
83% Err what just happened?
So I just slipped from police procedural, wrapped around with dark family history and possible PTSD, into full-blown let’s-solve-the-case-using-Urban-Fantasy in a single step. It felt like stepping out on to rock only to find that it’s scree and you’re going to go somewhere you really hadn’t intended to.
Editor’s Note: what can I say? That’s how it felt. Yet the ending of the book had almost nothing supernatural about it. It was a good conclusion both to the family story and the crime. Yet, I can see that the next books must continue the supernatural theme because Salazar can’t unsee what she’s seen or be someone other than who she is.