My thanks to Oneworld Publications and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
The Dust Never Settles is described by the author as her ‘love letter’ to her country Peru. Opening with mythology/origin stories which tie in to the book wonderfully later, we are introduced to Anaïs Echeverría who has a Peruvian mother and English father and has been raised in Peru, though living from the past 7 years in England. Anaïs is just returning to Peru to sign off papers for the sale of her family home, the yellow house on the hill, to developers who are to demolish it and construct a block of luxury flats. But the yellow house on the hill, with its ‘bedrooms upon bedrooms’ and filled with ‘multitudes of possessions’ belonging to those of the family who lived there in the past, and lots and lost of cats, is no ordinary family home:
It was Time that crowded into the casona, rising from the mound of earth below its foundations, rolling in from the sea, passing down from the neblina that shrouded the sky above. Time accumulated, thick and insistent like the Limenean dust from all directions. The very house seemed to breathe it in, to squeeze moments, lived and not yet lived, into its walls, its floors, into its empty spaces…
The house is not merely a building but a place where the past and present seem to live side by side. And Anaïs can see and experience it all—those that have lived there in the past can communicate with her. Anaïs has returned for a seemingly simple task, yet once she returns, her deep connect with her country and with the house come comes right to the surface—from her almost visceral reaction at breathing in the air when she lands at the airport, to seeing how the traditional homes and quarters are being replaced with modern apartments—the same as in any part of the world—she begins to put off signing the papers, and live in the house. Her mind is in a hazy space seeing and experiencing the house’s past and not quite able to function as ‘normal’, almost hallucinating about herself as well. She must deal with not only the house’s and her family’s past but also her own troubled relationship with her parents, and at some level also with her English fiancé, Rupert with whom she is expecting a child.
Alongside, in alternate chapters (numbered in Spanish), we follow the story of Julia Alvarez Yupanqui, a seventeen-year-old who worked as a maid for the Echeverrías, and fell to her death from a balcony in the yellow house, only to be resurrected as a saint. Through the eyes of Santa Julia, who works small miracles for common people, we see the story of Peru—from the arrival of colonizers to slavers and slaves, immigrant workers from China and Japan to Spaniards who created a new identity for themselves (including the early Echeverrías)—from those who lost their cultures attempting to preserve what little they could in new ways to those who faced violence and exploitation in different ways, from the revolution that never turned out the way people expected it to, to the plight of the poor in the present (all these are more like snapshots than a continuously flowing narrative), we see the different facets that together form the story of Peru while also getting a look into Julia’s own story and family.
This is a complex and rather strange story with many layers. The writing is quite beautiful and in some places, also rather raw, with a narrative in which lines blur between the real and imaginary, the past and present, memory and story, ghosts and the living.
Anaïs’ narrative was the more challenging one for me. While on the one side, I could understand the issues she grappled with—of identity (particularly the Peruvian identity she seems to be losing since she is half English, the child she is expecting even more so), of her relationship with her parents (more so her mother; but also her father—neither of them seem to really care for her), and also of the changing face of Peru (this aspect—the houses losing their character and changing into concrete blocks of luxurious flats like anywhere in the world—was something I could relate to since I’m seeing this in my neighbourhood as well, though this is nowhere as old or traditional as hers). On the other was her state of mind, the constant dreamy territory in which she floats, paranoia even—not quite able to function in real world terms—which made it feel like as a reader I too was in a floaty space in which I couldn’t make sense of things and couldn’t at any point have my feet firmly on the ground. At the end too, while there are some answers, as to her story, I felt there was a note of ambiguity where one couldn’t be sure what lay ahead.
Julia’s story, even though she was a ‘ghost’ of sorts, somehow made me feel more comfortable. She too navigates between past, present and future and gives us a sense and more so, a ‘feel’ of the country—the pain, the loss, the violence, the exploitation, and frustrated dreams and also the smaller everyday troubles of bureaucracy, red tape—all of which lies underneath its surface, and also of the small threads of hope that were/are there for people to hang on to and live by.
There was a lot that I liked in the book—the writing for the most part, the use of the time–space notion (time and space as one) by the author, and the sense it gave us of the yellow house on the hill, and also the country; the broader issues like loss of culture and identity for people when colonised and loss of character for cities when they ‘modernise’ among others give one plenty to reflect on as well. I also liked how the mythological background and some of what Anaïs is experiencing and Julia’s story tied in together as well as the resolution of some aspects at the end. But somehow with this book, particularly Anaïs’ narrative as I mentioned, there is always this feeling of being unsettled, not really knowing where one is. So overall a book that was absorbing, and yet, one where one does feel a little lost as well.