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The Mapmaker’s Opera

by Béa Gonzalez

Diego Clemente, bastard son of a Spanish don, journeys across the globe in 1909, on the eve of the Mexican Revolution, to join American conservationist and naturalist Edward Nelson, who is documenting the birds of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Diego has cut his ties with Spain, leaving behind him the tragedies of his childhood and youth in Seville, relieved only by a passion for John James Audubon’s Birds of America. Making a fresh start in Mexico, he finds himself seduced not only by Nelson’s unwavering passion for Mexico’s bird life but by Sofia Duarte, only daughter of a Mexican plantation owner and bookseller.

Sofia is just as smitten by Diego, but he does not have enough money to woo her. Sofia’s family is on the brink of financial disaster. There’s a wealthy young suitor in the wings who could save them, but only at the expense of Sofia’s heart. Like a grand opera, everything that can possibly go wrong does and it all ends in tragedy. Or does it?

In The Mapmaker’s Opera, Béa Gonzalez has created a world bursting at the seams with images and ideas, social history, revolutionary fervour, all informed by an overwhelming passion for preservation. This is a wonderfully vibrant tapestry, enveloping the reader with its richness in the same way that Diego Clemente is overwhelmed by the sensual lushness of the Yucatan. The novel is neatly constructed around the conceit of a grand tragic opera, and the musical motifs that Gonzalez uses throughout the novel are certainly interesting to follow. Gonzalez is especially to be complimented on using the sentimentality of the opera to fine effect in charting the course of Diego and Sofia’s doomed passion without trivializing either her characters or the star-crossed lovers motif.

But it is her exploration of story and storytelling that will truly captivate readers: through such songs as the Spanish seguiriyas, soleas, bulerias, and corridas that she weaves into the fabric of the narrative; through the now-fading map that we witness Diego painstakingly create, with all of its meticulous details; and through the little historical moments that are offered us in anecdotes and asides. And like Diego’s map, there’s plenty here that will require a second, and equally satisfying, visit to The Mapmaker’s Opera.