In Claudia Hernández’s complicated novel about war, longing, disappointment, and resilience, Slash and Burn, story and style vie for supremacy.
The story begins with the memory of a schoolgirl struggling through an exam on which the answer to a question is “Paris.” Through the fast unfolding of events, it becomes clear how the unnamed narrator came to know what she does about Paris. It is a place she’s never seen, but now endeavors to visit, because, at last, she has located her daughter, who was taken from her at birth and at the start of a civil war.
Following the school test and the later scramble for funds to get to Paris, Slash and Burn goes on to relate the story of the mother’s past, when she fought in the insurgency of an unnamed war in an unnamed place. The book also covers the indifferent daughter whom the mother finds in France, though the lives of her other daughters are just as complicated. One embarks on a tumultuous quest for education in France and holds dreams of forging a relationship with her resentful, long-lost sister, while another lives with the orchestrated fairy tale that her estranged father cares for her. The eldest daughter’s dreams of attending university are thwarted time and again.
The narration is chaotic and voyeuristic. In it, characters are unnamed, and events are covered with rambling exposition. While it is largely dialogue free, the book’s few lines of speech come in a recounted style. A pronoun identifying one character will soon apply to another, yet the story retains its clarity. Violence is conveyed in a nonchalant choreography of actions so as to seem matter-of-fact.
With each of its story lines weaving artfully into the next, Slash and Burn is an astonishing literary novel whose style is daring and whose tales are tragic.
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