A chance encounter with a movie producer leads to a job posing as a stand-in for a well-known film star. The star reels her in deeper, though, and soon she's inhabiting the actress' skin off-set, too - going deeper into the Casablancan night and further from herself. And so continues a strange and breathtaking journey full of unexpected turns, an adventure in which the woman finds herself moving further and further away from the person she once was.
Told with vibrant, lush detail and a wicked sense of humor, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty is part literary mystery, part psychological thriller - an unforgettable novel that explores free will, power, and a woman's right to choose not her past, perhaps not her present, but certainly her future. This is Vendela Vida's most assured and ambitious novel yet.
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Interesting Experiment, Questionable Results
This novel is an intriguing experiment: it tells the story of a woman who is losing her identity through a series of misunderstandings, and it does so in the second person. We get addressed in the person of the protagonist, and the idea of that seems powerful and effective.
Unfortunately, I found the experiment largely failed . The second-person gambit begins to feel old very quickly, especially as it sets the scene too-long in the making of her having her passport and other belongings stolen in Casablanca. The book seems to hold its conceit out for us to admire, and it does so at the expense of moving things along more quickly from the start.
Later, things do move somewhat more quickly, but by then we’ve reached what seem the limits of this second-person narration. The constant “you” implies an intimacy. It feels as if we are talking with the narrator in a frank and open way. Except the novel turns perpetually on new revelations: remember you have a sister; remember you carried her daughter as a surrogate mother; remember you aren’t sure you can trust your husband any longer. The result is that we are constantly reminded we don’t know this person. The novel moves forward as much be “our” remembering things we didn’t know we’d forgotten as by events. And those events are often driven by “our” decisions, decisions we can’t fully understand.
The novel does have nice ambition. Beyond the technical experiment, it creates an eerie cast of doubles: she is a twin sister; she looks enough like at least two other women to be mistaken for them; she becomes a professional stand-in; and she goes through situations that uncomfortably mirror one another. It also puts forward the outlines of a provocative look at how women in particular are made to assume different identities in different contexts.
Such ambition never quite comes to a point, though, and those ideas mostly hover around the story rather than assert themselves in it. The novel moves quickly, but it never quite seems to get where it’s going.
You have gotten to the end of it, and, sighing with some disappointment, you put it back on the shelf.
- Joe Kraus