Review by: KEN KORCZAK
Pablo is an ordinary 20-something man living in a quaint Spanish village near the Mediterranean coast. He finds himself leading a simple, yet near ideal life. He’s employed in his mom-and-dad’s small grocery store. He has a pretty girlfriend, a cadre of good pals, a motorcycle … and he belongs to a supportive, tight-knit community.
But Pablo’s world is about to be shattered by tragedy. Suddenly, his comfy foundation is pulled out from under him. So many things he took for granted are gone.
The upending of his pleasant existence launches him on an unexpected journey of self-discovery that may not have happened if fate hadn’t thrown him a painful curve ball.
His journey of self-discovery manifests as a struggle between to competing viewpoints of modern life:
One is the dominant paradigm today, the pragmatic rationalism of a materialistic, scientific world view – versus that which many people today believe has been suppressed – a perspective focused inward on intuitive, non-rational, nonlinear and feelings-based cues that can lead to insights that may seem unrealistic at first, but tend to carry greater meaning, and ultimately, deeper value.
If I’m making this seem like this is a book of deep philosophy, it’s not that, or at least doesn’t read that way thanks to the skillful way author Matthew Félix lays out his story, so much of which takes place on surface, and where the action is stalled only occasionally for the deeper lessons the author wants to describe.
The latter is provided by the appearance of a classic figure of myth, literature and lore – the “Wise Old Man,” described as an archetype by the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and “a stock character” by Northrop Fry’s “Anatomy of Criticism.”
In this case, it’s the mysterious Victor Sarquino, a man with deep roots in the Andalusian region but who has not been seen in Pablo’s village for more than a quarter century, only to return suddenly for unknown reasons. He’s the classic archetype: Elderly, white bearded, piercing blue eyes and brimming with sage advice. (Think Gandalf, Merlin, Obi-Wan Kenobi …)
If there’s any weakness to this novel it’s the way Pablo and Victor engage in a series of philosophical dialectics that stops the flow of the narrative so that our hero can pepper his mentor with (often whiny) questions, prompting the Wise Old Man to dole out his wisdom, which border on becoming rather preachy lectures for us readers.
The great strength of this book, however, is the way Matthew Félix’s weaves spectacular observations of nature into the flow of the narrative. Because it’s set in the one of the most ancient and picturesque regions of the world, the Mediterranean coastal regions of southern Spain, the author has abundant material to leverage.
The natural environment takes center stage as a major character of the novel. Also, Pablo appears to gain strength, wisdom and insight from engaging with the spectacular scenery — rugged mountains, sparkling oceans, and splendid landscapes graced by groves of olive, almond or carob trees. There’s also misty caves, mountain goats, falcons, wildflowers and Neolithic rock formations to invoke a deeper sense of place and mystery.
I must also mention Mr. Félix’s obvious appreciation for ancient Moorish architecture and references to the passing cultures of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians – all of whom vied for dominance of this resplendent land for thousands of years – and this enriches the narrative with a profound acknowledgment of the importance of history.
Unlike the rather rote dissertations on intuition and inner wisdom we get from the dialog with old Señor Sarquino – the author deftly allows us experience the profound landscape of timeless, romantic Spain through the eyes of his main character – and this is where the novel truly sores.
There is one aspect of the novel that remains a bitter disappointment to me – but I will not discuss that here – for the very reason is that I know that 95% of other readers will disagree with me on this issue. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what I might be talking about … if you even can.
All in all, though, this is a fine first novel that provides great escapism, a just profound-enough philosophical message to inspire, and an interesting enough plot to keep us turning pages while we root for the protagonist and cheer him forward on his journey of discovery.
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
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