A book recommendation prompted by a tip from Kate Schatz, the author of our upcoming PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me: A Story.
Lost City Radio is a first novel by Daniel Alarcon. It’s a remarkably evocative portrait of a war-ravaged South American country, in which husbands/sons/boyfriends/lovers routinely disappear, in which very few people can even remember how – or even why – the war began in the first place, and in which one radio show, hosted by the honey-voiced Norma, grips the nation every week as it takes calls from listeners who are hoping to be reunited with friends or family members who vanished months or years ago.
This is a very, very good novel.
You can buy the book on Amazon here, and here’s a short extract from the start of Chapter Ten.
For Norma, the war began fourteen years earlier, the day she was sent to cover a fire in Tamoe. She was just a copy editor at the radio station then, and had never been on the air, her voice an undiscovered treasure. She and Rey had been married for more than two years, but she still thought of herself as a newlywed. He was due to return from the jungle that afternoon. It was October, nearing the sixth anniversary of the beginning of the war, though no one kept time that way in those days.
Norma arrived on the scene to find the firemen watching as the house burned. A few men with guns and masks stood in front of the fire. A polite crowd had gathered around the house, arms crossed, blinking away the acrid smoke. Norma could still make out the word TRAITOR painted in black on the burning wall. The terrorists didn’t move or make threats – they didn’t have to. The firemen were volunteers. They wouldn’t take a bullet for a fire. It was late afternoon at the edge of the city, and soon it would be dark. There were no streetlights in this part of the district. Norma’s eyes stung. The firemen had given up. One of them sat on his hard plastic helmet, smoking a cigarette. “Are you going to do anything?” Norma asked.
The man shook his head. His face was dotted with whitish stubble. “Are you?”
“I’m just a reporter.”
“So report. Why don’t you start with this: there’s a man inside. He’s tied to a wooden chair.”
The fireman blew smoke from his nose in dragon bursts.
And for the duration of the war, more than the firefights in the Old Plaza, more than the barricaded streets of The Cantonment or even the apocalyptic Battle of Tramoe – this is what Norma remembered: this man inside, this stranger, tied to a chair. For the rest of that long night and into the early morning, as the news came from a dozen remote points in the city, news of an offensive, news of an attack, as the first of the Great Blackouts spread across the capital – Norma took it all in with the drugged indifference of a sleepwalker. Cruelty was something she couldn’t process that day. On another day, perhaps, she might have done better. She looked the fireman in the eye, hoping to find a hint of untruth, but there was none. The people watched the flames dispassionately. The fire crackled, the house fell in on itself, and Norma listened for him. Surely, he was dead already. Surely his lungs were full of smoke and his heart still. For Norma, there was only a light-headed feeling, like being hollowed out. She felt incapable of writing anything down, of asking a single question. At the edge of the crowd, a girl of thirteen or fourteen sucked on a lollipop. Her mother rang the tiny bell on her juice cart, and it clinked brightly.