Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This novel is an intriguing experiment: it tells the story of a woman who is losing her identity through a series of misunderstandings, and it does so in the second person. We get addressed in the person of the protagonist, and the idea of that seems powerful and effective.

Unfortunately, I found the experiment largely failed. The second-person gambit begins to feel old very quickly, especially as it sets the scene too-long in the making of her having her passport and other belongings stolen in Casablanca. The book seems to hold its conceit out for us to admire, and it does so at the expense of moving things along more quickly from the start.

Later, things do move somewhat more quickly, but by then we’ve reached what seem the limits of this second-person narration. The constant “you” implies an intimacy. It feels as if we are talking with the narrator in a frank and open way. Except the novel turns perpetually on new revelations: remember you have a sister; remember you carried her daughter as a surrogate mother; remember you aren’t sure you can trust your husband any longer. The result is that we are constantly reminded we don’t know this person. The novel moves forward as much be “our” remembering things we didn’t know we’d forgotten as by events. And those events are often driven by “our” decisions, decisions we can’t fully understand.

The novel does have nice ambition. Beyond the technical experiment, it creates an eerie cast of doubles: she is a twin sister; she looks enough like at least two other women to be mistaken for them; she becomes a professional stand-in; and she goes through situations that uncomfortably mirror one another. It also puts forward the outlines of a provocative look at how women in particular are made to assume different identities in different contexts.

Such ambition never quite comes to a point, though, and those ideas mostly hover around the story rather than assert themselves in it. The novel moves quickly, but it never quite seems to get where it’s going.

You have gotten to the end of it, and, sighing with some disappointment, you put it back on the shelf.

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