Anthony De Sa’s previous books – the Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated story collection Barnacle Love and the novel Kicking the Sky – both examined the experiences of Portuguese immigrants in and around the Toronto neighbourhood where the author grew up. With his second novel, De Sa branches farther afield, to Mozambique under Portuguese colonial rule during the revolutionary and civil wars of the 1960s and ’70s.
Though the bulk of the story is set in the past, we meet all three of the book’s narrators in present day: Pó, an elderly albino woman squatting in Mozambique’s abandoned Grande Hotel; Serafim, the Brazilian journalist with a troubled past who is determined to record Pó’s story before the woman succumbs to the cancer that is ravaging her body; and Ezequiel, Pó’s estranged husband, who is suffering from dementia and living in Toronto years after escaping the horrors of his life in Mozambique.
De Sa packs a lot into this slim novel, all of it weighty. Pó’s albinism has been the defining feature of her existence, and the author delves deeply into the superstitions, misconceptions, and dangers that afflict her daily life, even in modern times. The unrelenting violence surrounding Ezequiel after he is abducted by rebels at age 13 following the murder of his adoptive missionary parents makes for some tough reading, but is necessary to give readers even a rudimentary understanding of the realities of the time. Even Serafim, whose role is secondary but vital, offers no relief, given his binge-drinking, sad childhood, and crushing need to atone for exposing to the world a previously undiscovered Amazon tribe after profiling them in a popular article.
Though De Sa’s novel is billed as a story of love and war, the latter definitely takes prominence. Pó and Ezequiel’s relationship, which springs up quickly when their storylines finally converge, is tragically short-lived. There are allusions to tenderness and emotion, but these provide only mild and temporary relief from the otherwise grim narrative. Ezequiel never fully outruns his fear of being found by the murderous secret police commander he escaped after years of servitude. When the fateful day of reckoning arrives, the details of how Exequiel eludes his former boss a second time feel sketchy.
Despite the heaviness of the content, De Sa’s spare and straightforward prose is comfortingly neutral. There is little variation in the narrative voices of the three characters, yet the story itself is propulsive. Though it’s unlikely readers will be emotionally affected, they will still be left with much to consider about the subjects of colonialism, race, and acceptance.