Daniel Alarcón’s Lost City Radio (Harper Collins 2007) is a lush, complex tale set in an unnamed country at an unknown time. Norma is the host of a radio program that attempts to reunite families separated by the country’s long civil war, but because she is under the watchful eye of the powerful government, there are limits to what she can do. She would like to use the airwaves to search for Rey, her own husband, missing now for years, but because he was part of the defeated resistance movement, she cannot speak his name. Along comes Victor, a boy from the jungle who has lost his parents and bears a list of names from his village. He has been sent to Norma on a mission. She is reluctant, but Norma knows that Rey had visited the boy’s village and so she agrees to help, even beginning to feel the maternal urges she thought she would never have. As Norma and Victor search for the teacher who brought him to the city and may be able to answer questions, information about the long war and about Norma and Rey’s relationship is revealed.
Overall, this is a satisfying read, made all the more universal by Alarcón’s use of the non-specified country and time. If you feel that you now live under a repressive government about which you cannot safely speak out, this could be about you. Or about how things will become in time, if you don’t take steps to halt your government’s slide toward fascism. It is, though, not an easy book to read because of the constant movement in time between the period after Victor’s arrival in the city and everything that came before, either in Norma’s memory or simply a jump in time and space to events that occurred elsewhere, long ago. I found it somewhat difficult to keep track of the number of years that had passed since various events. Eventually, when we know better what significance the boy Victor holds in the story, he serves as a kind of measuring stick by which to judge the passing of time, but for most of the book that tool isn’t available.
Despite that complaint, this is an important novel that I would recommend.