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Requiem in La Paz

June 30, 2014

I can’t resist a pun in a mystery novel title, can you? So I had to read Requiem in La Paz, especially because it’s by Jonna Gjevre, someone I met at Wiscon the first time I went, and who signed my copy of her book this last time. Even better, when I started reading I found out it was about a string quartet on tour in Bolivia, a quartet gaining renown for their rendition of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. The first-person narrator is a girl who was a child prodigy as a violinist but is now seventeen and has switched to playing the viola (cue PDQ Bach’s Mozart, singing “I was a child prodigy but now I’m just a grown-up guy”).

Foreshadowing brings you along so you start to draw inescapable conclusions. On the second page, one member of the quartet, Mikhail, says to the narrator, Isobel, that “there’s a long history of violinists who sell their soul to the devil. Tartini. Paganini. Dude down in Georgia.” Repeatedly, before a character dies, Isobel sees a “pale man.” She meets a pathologist, Dr. Paulsen, who studies mummies and he tells her “I’m one of those who interrogate the dead.” A necromancer, in other words. We know he’s going to be up to no good.

We find out that something is seriously wrong with Isobel the first time she sneaks into a hotel bathroom in the middle of the night to play her muted viola. What is her compulsion to play a tune that no one can recognize, one that the violinist, Lucia, says reminds her of Ysaye’s La Malinconia? Why is it that when Lucia tries to play Isobel’s viola she stops breathing and has to be rushed to the hospital? What happened to Isobel’s father the night he tried to convince her to return the viola, four months ago? Isobel knows, and yet she doesn’t really know. She thinks she was playing “the most beautiful music in the world.” When Paulsen hears it, as an encore to a concert in Bolivia, he says “I recognize a summoning spell when I hear one.”

The mystery continues to deepen as the musicians continue their tour. Also there are action sequences, like one in which “a stone puma burst out of the crowd and struck the concession stand, snarling with mossy teeth and scattering yellow bottles of Inca Kola.” As they travel deeper into Bolivia, Isobel confronts truths she hasn’t previously been strong enough to face: “where your silver comes from. How your treasures are made. Whose hands took your pearls from the sea. You don’t want to know how it’s paid for, how many lives it has cost.”

At the climax of the novel, Isobel confronts the devil: “gazing up at the devil’s beauty, I felt something take hold of me, something more powerful than anything I’d ever known: a longing to embrace that beauty, to give myself entirely to his service.” Isobel thinks that Paulsen, the necromancer, “sees the devil as he really is. Not as I saw him” but she is wrong. Paulsen is out of his depth, trying to influence forces that he cannot possibly control.

Part of the fun of this mystery is the way foreshadowing and magic elements become more important as you find out more about what is happening and why. You are dragged along unwillingly with the first-person narrator, who can’t believe what is happening any more than you can, even though it’s happening to her.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2014 12:14 pm

    That quote about the violinists who have sold their soul to the devil ending with “Dude down in Georgia” cracked me up! Sounds like a fun book!

  2. July 1, 2014 11:52 pm

    Thanks for posting that link to the Ysaÿe sonata, Jeanne. I hadn’t heard Zimmerman’s version before!

  3. lemming permalink
    July 2, 2014 9:06 am

    “An Equal Music” is also about strings – no necromancy – and is amazing.

    • July 2, 2014 9:10 am

      No necromancy? But…it’s not like I’m fascinated by it or anything…

  4. July 4, 2014 3:57 pm

    This really does sound intriguing. It’s on my list!

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