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At Night We Walk in Circles: A Novel

During the war – which Nelson’s father called the anxious years- a few radical students at the Conservatory founded a theater company. They read the French surrealists, and improvised adaptions of Quechua myths; they smoked cheap tobacco, and sang protest songs with vulgar lyrics. 

Nelson’s life is not turning out the way he hoped. His girlfriend is sleeping with another man, his brother has left their South American country, leaving Nelson to care for their widowed mother, and his acting career can’t seem to get off the ground. That is, until he lands a starring role in a touring revival of The Idiot President, a legendary play by Nelson’s hero, Henry Nunez, leader of the storied guerrilla theater troupe Diciembre. And that’s when the real trouble begins. The tour takes Nelson out of the shelter of the city and across a landscape he’s never seen, which still bears the scars of the civil war. With each performance, Nelson grows closer to his fellow actors, becoming hopelessly entangled in their complicated lives, until, during one memorable performance, a long-buried betrayal surfaces to force the troupe into chaos. Nelson’s fate is slowly revealed through the investigation of the narrator, a young man obsessed with Nelson’s story—and perhaps closer to it than he lets on. In sharp, vivid, and beautiful prose, Alarcón delivers a compulsively readable narrative and a provocative meditation on fate, identity, and the large consequences that can result from even our smallest choices.”

At first, At Night We Walk in Circles wasn’t as good as I thought it would be. It progressed slowly, and wasn’t that riveting. After the first twenty pages, I didn’t feel the need to keep reading. But the novel definitely had its points, and got better as it went on. Still, I didn’t find it a great book, despite its very intriguing premise, which seemed like a mix of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards and something else. After all, we have an interesting, enigmatic narrator who’s not being quite honest about who he is. The narrator of At Night We Walk in Circles is obsessed with Nelson for some reason, and he’s perhaps “closer to it than he lets on.” I think this was a great narrative point of view, as we can see this mysterious other man investigating and we read about Nelson’s work and his fate. 

Still, I feel like a lot more could have been done with this book, and it didn’t totally live up to its potential. Yes, the writing is pretty interesting, but you can tell from the writing that Daniel Alarcon thinks he’s brilliant and innovative, which I’m not so sure about. Though there were some passages, some turns of phrase, that I really enjoyed reading. I can’t quite put my finger down on why At Night We Walk in Circles wasn’t so compelling to me. Perhaps it’s that the book is a bit short on action, and it’s certainly not “compulsively readable” as the blurb boasts.Yes, things happen, but they’re interspersed with a little too many unnecessary reflections and meditations. The story itself was also very odd, and perhaps oddly told. I couldn’t quite fathom the narrator’s fascination with Nelson, or why he was so bent on tracing his roots, talking to everyone involved with him, or even anyone who had met him once or twice. Nelson didn’t seem like a really interesting person, so I knew that indeed the narrator must be more connected to him.

As I read on, I also realized that At Night We Walk in Circles felt kind of overwritten to me. There were dense paragraphs with (somewhat) flowery turns of phrase that I caught myself skimming over, despite some of them being interesting. Still, there were some sections of the book that I liked okay, and the story, while odd, was certainly interesting enough and fairly original. It was also kind of bizarre, but in a good way, and I liked that the novel took place in an unnamed but somewhat typical South American country under rebellion, where Henry Nunez’s plays are banned. But now there’s revival with Nelson in it, and as you might expect that’s where the real trouble begins. It’s also where the novel starts to get better and more interesting.

There were some great, bizarre passages in the book, such as the way Nunez and his sister have invented a laughing game to help get out of trouble. That was so funny, and there were other odd moments like that that worked very well, and kind of redeemed the book. As often happens, the second half was much, much better, and the story picked up too.

I certainly didn’t love At Night We Walk in Circles, but it wasn’t a horrible book either. I really loved the idea of it, with its interesting title and oddball plot; it sounded like a perfect mix of the literary, the mysterious, and the entertaining. It just didn’t work so well for me, although it might for other people. I ended up liking it, although it could have been better. I received an ARC from Riverhead Books; the novel doesn’t come out until October 31st.

372 pages.

Rating: ***

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