Book Review: Villa Pacifica

By Paula Green

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Villa Pacifica by Kapka Kassabova
Penguin, $39

Kapka Kassabova's Villa Pacifica book cover. Photo / Supplied
Kapka Kassabova's Villa Pacifica book cover. Photo / Supplied

Kapka Kassabova is the author of four poetry collections, two previous novels and the terrific memoir, Street Without A Name. Her new novel, the immensely readable Villa Pacifica, is set in a country in South America and has absorbed a befitting hint of magic realism.

Ute (pronounced ooh-tah), a professional travel-guide writer, is always on the hunt for the exotic, the undiscovered and the unsignposted to set her latest travel entry apart from the rest. Her husband Jerry, on the other hand, is a ratty traveller when outside his comfort zone and, as a fiction writer, is more interested in mapping a story.

The couple end up off the beaten track in Puerto Seco (Dry Port) against a backdrop of corrupt politics, the elite fleecing the poor and a land hungering for rain. Without specific directions and ambiguous reactions from the locals, they make their way to Villa Pacifica, not at all sure about the accommodation they will find.

It was a real bonus reading an advance copy of the novel without any idea of where Kassabova was leading and without spoiler details from reviews that give a potted version of the complete plot.

So my challenge is to provide a sense of the novel's curves and moods without giving away how it all fits together.

The novel's first strength lies in the marvellous rendition of place. Not just the flora and fauna of the villa but the sumptuous details that bring the outlying areas to life: the National Park, the lagoon, the Cafe Fin del Mondo and the animal sanctuary. When the couple miraculously reach their destination, the wooden gates open on to a lush vista - an exuberant tropical garden with screeching insects, rotting vegetation and signposts to wild animals.

This place may be invented - or an amalgam of bits and pieces of Kassabova's knowledge and experience of South America - but as someone who knows the region only through its literature, it felt believable.

The novel's second strength lies in an evocation of tourist dynamics where truth is stranger than fiction. Or, more significantly, where characters can be stranger than fiction. Unlikely people get thrown into close proximity, from the boorish to the boring, from the smug to the ignorant to the interesting. Kassabova's tourists are no exception. There is the difficulty of communication and comprehension with no single language in common. There is the difficulty of upholding, misjudging and transgressing local etiquette.

There is the difficulty of matching and mismatching a couple's choice of activities to fill the day.

Villa Pacifica underlines the way travel can place couples under strain - exposing rancour, new intimacies, unexpected lust and vulnerabilities. Ute and Jerry, and indeed all the tourist couples, are tested by such perils. It is as though their relationships are sapped and they succumb to the lethargic rot of the vegetation.

If this is a novel of layers, then various glues hold them together. The third and perhaps most potent strength (or glue) of the book is the mood. A sinister, unsettling undertow seeps into every nook and cranny and steadily builds through subtle hints and omissions.

A deluge of rain establishes the turning point. The characters are thrust into physical, emotional and psychological challenges and, at this point, it becomes clear the most vital and seductive journey is that of Ute. She is not just after the next travel entry.

There is another equally vital and seductive plot twist but, in my mind, telling you this will diminish rather than enhance your reading experience. You need to discover this for yourself.

Kassabova is an accomplished poet but she keeps her poetic skills subtle rather than extravagant. Her sentences are lean and elegant and serve the story well. She does favour pockets of metaphorical language and her similes are enviable: "The sun was an egg poached in the clouds" and "the women stolid and chirpy like a flock of geese in hats".

Villa Pacifica is a haunting and utterly satisfying read on every level. I loved the strangeness, the anticipation, the concrete details. I loved the flicker between the fathomable and the hard to fathom. The novel brought to mind the magnificent ability of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to evoke place and person in The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira. Kassabova's new novel is magnificent.

* Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.

- NZ Herald

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