Beauty of the World
by Stacey Newman
Published by Wingate Press
250 pages, 2006
Don't Look Away
Reviewed by M. Wayne Cunningham
In the disclaimer to her debut novel, The Beauty of the World, Toronto-based author Stacey Newman says that her book "is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is purely coincidental."
Despite her reassurances, however, elements of her fiction are frighteningly reminiscent of current mid-Eastern conflicts. The very essence of shock and awe, the novel is art mirroring life in a shattering story of wartime atrocities, political intrigue, families torn apart, a nation destroyed and its people betrayed. And it is utterly riveting.
The fictionalized events occur in the landlocked Republic of Perda, sometimes in its capital city of Buena Gente, sometimes in its mountains, the Colinas del Fuegos and sometimes in its Internment Camps, where in Camp One alone 1269 refugees, including 196 children die. Before being occupied by soldiers of the Coalition of Nations, Perda is an abundant source of coffee and vast, greedily coveted natural resources. Afterwards it becomes a site of civil war, internment camps, bombings, curfews, rape and widespread devastation. Adding to the realism for the occupation is an end page epilogue of "Perdan War Statistics" for the 39 month engagement with its eight year forecast for reconstruction and its record of deaths and casualties, military and civilian, numbers all too familiar for military engagements and their collateral damage reports.
Within the framework of past and present, of pre- and post-occupation, we learn about the Republic's governing family, the Adalardos, with matriarch, Bellona, the governor of the State, her husband the aristocratic, Alberto, loyal to his wife but not convinced of the wisdom of her invitation to Coalition powers to occupy Perda. And then there is Talia, their rebellious twentysomething daughter, who, supported by her older lover, Emil Devante, openly defies her mother's actions. She leaves home to lead the idealistic ragtag reformists who are opposed to the Coalition's occupation, as are the more aggressively militant third party, Alianza Central de Prada and a rogue militia.
As Beauty of the World begins, a young freelance foreign journalist, Sophie Panos, is caught in a crossfire that kills her colleague. On her first wartime assignment, Sophie, whose grandparents were born in Perda, is here only because more experienced journalists stayed home to boycott an illegal invasion disguised as an occupation-by-invitation to save Perdans from themselves but "never supported by the United Nations." Sophie is rescued by Devante and the pair set out to escape the torn up city and get to the Colinas del Fuegos.
As they dodge bullets and bombs, the episodes woven around them detail governor Adalardo's complicity in the invasion for the so-called stabilization of Perda, the split in her family's allegiances and the suffering that transpires for her, Talia and Alberto, and for her misguided political aide, Pierre Delacroix, who is Devante's lifetime friend and a would-be lover of Talia's. The horrors they face include a terrifying rape, scenes of torture and the consequences of a failed escape. And as Devante and Sophie flee, Sophie the journalist tries to pry background information from him about his relationship with Talia while Sophie the woman tries to comfort him as he worries about Talia's unknown fate after the failed escape attempt. And it is Sophie's unknown fate and the uncertain fate of Perda that keep the reader in spine tingling suspense to the end of the story.
Although a fictionalized version of current comparable situations, Newman's novel is a powerful, well-written rendition of war and political machinations and the toll they can take upon individuals. Her characters are full-bodied and fully motivated, her story is believable and emotionally charged and her talent as a storyteller is first class. Hopefully, she is busy crafting her next "product of the author's imagination" so we can get to see it soon. | June 2006
M. Wayne Cunningham is a former community college English instructor and administrator and once served as the executive director of the Saskatchewan Arts Board. His reviews have appeared in Books in Canada, The Mystery Review, Mystery Readers Journal, The Vancouver Rain Review of Books and in a weekly column he formerly wrote for The Kamloops Daily News. He is a resident of Kamloops, British Columbia.