Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes (A Book Review)

Posted: September 11, 2015 in Book Review
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Narcisa: Our Lady of Ashes
By Jonathan Shaw
Harper Perennial

The friend who recommended me this book asked me how I liked it. My response?

“I’m not sure this is a book you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ It’s compelling, it’s interesting, but there is little to like.”

Sure, Shaw paints an incredibly detailed vision of the favela’s of Rio de Janeiro. He dives head first into what it means to be addicted, to live with it every day. He makes the reader complicit in what is going on, perhaps hoping that Cigano (the narrator, but one who is less protagonist and more audience surrogate) and Narcisa (less a character and more a force of nature) will come out the other end relatively intact.

Cigano is a former addict and a thief, despite his claims at being a writer. Narcisa is a junkie, addicted to crack cocaine and wanting nothing less than to destroy herself and everything that comes in contact with her. The reader is treated to almost a day-by-day retelling of Cigano’s enrapture by Narcisa, of her destructive force in his life. Sure, Cigano gave up drugs on his own, but he becomes just as addicted to Narcisa, justifying it that he is trying to save her, one in a long line of saviors.

Shaw writes with conviction, having survived his own addictions, and his own demons. He writes with unabashed clarity and leaves little room for apologies. He writes not so much for the Narcisa’s of the world, wrapped in addiction and destroying those around them, but for the Cigano’s, that they might extricate themselves from the dark nihilists of the world.

My few complaints are that large chucks of the dialogue are all in bold and italic, which is meant to highlight the auditory assault of Narcisa on a full on rampage. The effect, however, is that the reader becomes numb and it loses effect. My other complaint is that the book drags on over long. Some of the segments could be condensed while still making the point and driving the plot. As a result, the book does read at times more like a diary then a novel. As a conceit, that works, but it also leads to fatigue for the reader where the same point is driven home more than once when it isn’t necessary.

I highly recommend this for anyone who wants a glimpse at the horror that lies underneath the veneer in Brazil, those that want a book to grab them by the back of the head and see just how terrible addiction can be. It stands as a warning sign, but it’s a beautiful one.

4 out of 5 stars.

  1. moteridgerider says:

    I remember reading Antony Beevor’s ‘Stalingrad’ and being left a hollowed out shell after every chapter. Not a book you enjoy, but one that needs to be read.

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