Spy thrillers are a staple of airport book racks, slick reads full of dashing good guys and despicable bad ones. They play on our paranoid fears of how the world really works just enough to give us a thrill and are as forgettable as yesterday's tweets.
Bob Shacochis' superb new novel is not that kind of book. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is set amid wars and occupations and is peopled by members of arcane intelligence agencies and other cabals, but it plays a deep game, and it will haunt your dreams. In its first pages, a character muses that "when Americans pray, they pray first that history will step aside and leave them alone, they pray for the deafness that comes with a comfortable life." The novel explores why such prayers may not be answered.
Shacochis, who is on the faculty of the creative writing program at Florida State University, won a National Book Award for first work of fiction in 1985 for Easy in the Islands, a story collection. His first novel, Swimming in the Volcano, was a finalist for another National Book Award in 1993. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is his second novel, but he has hardly been cooling his heels in the intervening two decades — in addition to teaching, he's been a cooking columnist, journalist and war correspondent. That last led to The Immaculate Invasion, his 1999 nonfiction book about the U.S. occupation of Haiti in the mid 1990s.
Haiti, in the waning days of that occupation, provides the setting for the first of the five sections of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. The novel opens with Tom Harrington, a globe-trotting human rights lawyer, at home in Miami telling his wife a carefully edited story about a woman he knew a couple of years before in Haiti, a freelance photojournalist with a talent for trouble and a face that reminds everyone who sees her of a popular movie star.
Tom knew her as Jackie Scott.
But he is going back to Haiti because Conrad Dolan, a retired FBI agent, has asked for his help in investigating the murder there of a woman named Renee Gardner. Renee was married to a high-rolling mobster who was Dolan's snitch. And Renee, it turns out, was Jackie.
Harrington is, despite his idealistic occupation, a wearily cynical man, bone-tired of the mass graves and horrifying depositions and official duplicity that are his day's work. But Jackie touched something in him, even though she most often made him angry. "Tom wanted her to be cute, a ditz, a sexy ideologue, a glib bitch, a camera junkie, a news hound, a crusader, anything but this — literal and seemingly unschooled and tormented and wrapped as tight as you get before you explode."
She is, of course, the woman of the title — she wants Tom's intercession with a vodou practitioner whom she thinks might be able to restore her missing soul. But Dolan's memories of her don't fit with Tom's at all, and that's only one layer of the enigma of her identity.
A young Special Forces soldier from Montana named Eville Burnette seems to know her well, although Tom can't quite figure out the nature of their relationship. In one surreal scene in the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, Tom speaks, in short order, to a Department of Justice agent who tells him she was a "cokehead, bimbo, gold digger"; a (probably) CIA guy who says she was an "asset" of the agency; and a drug dealer who says she was in his business. Not long after, a straight-arrow FBI agent tells him she was possessed by demons and killed by the devil.
Oh, it's not that simple. The second section of the novel, set in Croatia during World War II, focuses on a boy named Stjepan Kovacevic. At age 8, he witnesses the beheading of his father and the sexual assault of his mother, and those events will shape him forever. In the book's third section, which takes place in and around Istanbul in the mid 1980s, that boy has grown up to be Steven Chambers, a U.S. State Department employee with a loose job description. He is ferociously anticommunist, just as ferociously Catholic and, despite the ease with which he moves through their part of the world, fiercely anti-Muslim.
He is also Jackie's father, although at 17 she is Dottie Chambers, ironically named Dorothy (as in The Wizard of Oz) by her flower-child mother, whom her father has divorced and left behind in the United States. Enrolled in a school in Istanbul for the daughters of Westerners, Dottie is a bold, adventurous girl who chooses not to look into dark corners of her past. Her father is her hero, her beloved and perhaps her betrayer.
The book's last two sections, set in the United States, Haiti, Croatia and other locales, expand Burnette's character and his relationship with Dottie in unexpected directions. They also bring the story into the late 1990s and tie its earlier plot lines to the early stirrings of Islamist terrorism.
Just who Dottie/Jackie/Renee (she has other names as well) is and what really happened to her are questions the plot moves toward answering. But Shacochis also turns his relentless eye on the men who surround her (and they are mostly men), the "architects of the unseen ... the dark matter of the world of intelligence. They lived in two realms at once, like a certain kind of particle in quantum physics, simultaneously occupying the moral antipodes of a universe looking back at itself in a mirror, the entire world a shell company for another world, one reality a parallel for still another reality."
What loyalty or patriotism or love can mean to such men is an open question, but Shacochis bodies them forth in all their complexity. He controls a hugely complex plot with great skill and writes set pieces with gripping effect — a scene in which a sailboat is sinking in a storm had me gasping for breath. Line for line, his writing is stunning.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul would be a compelling and thought-provoking novel at any time. But in a year in which the reach of U.S. intelligence organizations has been exposed as never before and the Middle East is heating once again to boiling, it's more timely than perhaps even the author might have guessed. It does not flinch from a world revealed as "an endless hallway of locked and unidentified doors that opened into nothing until one door in fact opened into everything, but you were never going to have access to that door."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.