‘The Wind That Lays Waste’ by Selva Almada (Review)

When I received a review copy of the International-Booker-Prize-longlisted novel The Adventures of China Iron from the nice people at Charco Press, they were kind enough to throw in a few more of their titles, and today sees me looking at one of those books, another work that was tipped for the longlist before the announcement.  Like Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s novel, it’s set in Argentina, but this book features a very different kind of story.  Rather than being an epic romp with a host of memorable creations, my latest choice is far more stripped back.  Join me for a day in the middle of nowhere, with four distinct characters, and a storm on the horizon…

Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews) is a short, terse novel, barely more than a novella, that details an encounter between two men that develops into something more.  Reverend Pearson and his daughter, Leni, are on their way to visit another man of the church when their old car finally gives up the ghost somewhere on an empty rural highway.  Taken by a passing truck driver to a nearby garage, they are greeted by Gringo Brauer and his assistant Tapioca, and as the mechanic works on the car in the sweltering heat, the other three do what they can to survive the weather and the awkward situation.

Pearson isn’t a man to sit around quietly, though, particularly when there are young souls like Tapioca’s, waiting to be told of the church and brought into the fold.  Yet even if the teenager seems receptive to the preacher’s advances, Brauer is another story, and the visitor will have to tread lightly if he is to achieve his goal.  As night closes in, and the weather takes a turn for the worse, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the tranquil day is unlikely to end peacefully.

Almada’s debut novel runs to just over 100 pages, mostly told in short chapters, meaning it’s a book you’re unlikely to be spending days on (I read it in two sittings on the same evening).  There’s a beautiful simplicity to the book and its almost play-like focus on one event, with interspersed memories helping to fill in gaps and provide some context.  Despite this, the story never just drifts, and we always feel that we’re moving towards something, even if we’re not exactly sure how that something will play out.

The character given the most space to develop in The Wind That Lays Waste is the Reverend, and throughout the book we’re shown glimpses of his life, from his baptism as a young boy to the pursuit of his vocation.  He’s no ordinary churchman, preferring to travel the back roads in the hope of saving those the church tends to overlook, and this includes helping the violent, the addicted and the lost.  He manages this thanks to a tireless work ethic and his electric preaching, able to walk into a non-descript local hall and thrill the congregation with his words.

But there’s another side to him, the father, and this dichotomy is felt by Leni, a moody teen beginning to tire of her itinerant lifestyle.  While she loves her dad, her positive feelings are mixed with resentment:

Her childhood was very recent, but her memory of it was empty.  Thanks to her father, the Reverend Pearson, and his holy mission, all she could remember was the inside of the same old car, crummy rooms in hundreds of indistinguishable hotels, the features of dozens of children she never spent long enough with to miss when the time came to move on, and a mother whose face she could hardly recall.
pp.6/7 (Charco Press, 2019)

She’s reached an awkward age, where she’s beginning to long for more freedom, and she finds herself  increasingly split between loving her father and his work, and hating the eternal moving around and proselytising.

The old garage in the middle of nowhere is the unlikely setting for two different worlds to collide.  Brauer, the ageing bruiser with no time for fancy notions, is raising a quiet boy left behind by his mother, and he’s quick to make his thoughts clear when the Reverend starts to subtly enquire about the boy’s religious upbringing:

He had taught Tapioca to respect the natural world.  He believed in the forces of nature.  But he had never mentioned God.  He could see no reason to talk about something he thought irrelevant. (p.54)

And yet, in one brief conversation, the boy is shaken.  A seed is planted, and the desire to know more, both about God and the outside world, starts to grow.

The story is set up nicely, with Almada depicting a day of tiptoeing around a conversation that has to be had.  There are parallels between the two pairs, with both children having absent mothers (albeit for different reasons), and Andrews does an excellent job in capturing the simple style, which gradually increases the tension as the story unfolds.  There’s a slow, steady build-up towards a confrontation the reader sees coming from miles away, just like the storm clouds rolling across the plains, but what the storm will bring in its wake is unclear until the very end.

Even then many readers will be left wondering what it’s all about as The Wind That Lays Waste isn’t a book to give all its secrets up in one go.  There’s an enigmatic nature to the novel, summed up on the last page, leaving the reader wondering just what happened, and where the story goes from here.  This ending is both neat, in the way it provides a nice parallel to the start of the book, and intriguing, with the writer leaving one last mystery for the reader to puzzle over.  In the end, Almada seems to be presenting two different approaches to life, those of the interventionist soldier of God and the helpful, kindly humanist.  Some readers will undoubtedly be asking themselves which is better.  However, perhaps a better way to consider the issue is whether there’s a need to choose between them…

6 thoughts on “‘The Wind That Lays Waste’ by Selva Almada (Review)

  1. I thought this was great and it may well end up on my end of year list. It’s lasted well in memory too. As you say, it does read like a play – four characters and basically one location (plus a couple of flashbacks).

    Nice review. There’s a lot in this one isn’t there?


    1. Max – It’s one that many people I trust were tipping for the International Booker longlist, and I can see why (in fact, there have been several books I’ve read recently that I would rather have seen on the list than some of those that did make it…).


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