A villa in need of repairs

by Jane Westaway / 25 September, 2010
An air of portentousness is no substitute for event in Kapka Kassabova's new novel.

Some novels - and Kapka Kassabova's latest is one of them - read as neither good nor bad, but underdeveloped. As if the manuscript has been delivered prematurely into a cold world, whereas, left to grow through another draft or two, it might have emerged more powerful, more shaped for life and fit for purpose.

The Villa Pacifica of the title is an off-the-map South American coastal resort and wildlife refuge discovered by travel-guide writer Ute and her English writer husband, Jerry. In spite of her adventurous life, Ute suffers from low self-esteem, as well as eczema and infertility. Hers and Jerry's counterpoint is Max, an obnoxious rich American, and his wife, who have come here to conceive their fourth child. We also meet other guests, staff and nearby Port Seco inhabitants.

While Ute researches the down-at-heel town and surrounds, Jerry begins work on a novella about Villa Pacifica. Ute is fleetingly jealous of Max's wife, who visits the animals with Jerry. Visiting them herself, though, she meets and lusts after the "slow-moving, deeply tanned ... deeply attractive" Carlos, a gaucho who cares for the animals.

Chronological puzzles emerge - something odd is happening to time. Their host goes in for political and environmental rants, and Max for sexist, capitalist ones. Ute and Jerry get lost then found in the national park. A storm breaks over Villa Pacifica, inter-guest conflicts crank up, a snorkelling group gets stranded by Max, who takes the boat. Then Ute goes away on her own into the hills.

Kassabova tells her story in an easy, fluid style, from time to time delivering vivid images that reveal her poetic talent. But for the bulk of the novel, there's simply not enough story to tell. An air of portentousness is no substitute for event, and it works against real engagement - we are told too much and shown too little.

Jerry is shadowy, Max and Carlos little more than caricatures. Ute herself remains colourless. In spite of being privy to her interior world - her difficult Finnish childhood, her dreams, her feelings about Jerry - the reader can form no real attachment to her, although she is the novel's lynchpin.

Kassabova's prose evidences the lack of polish that another draft might well have eliminated - clunky expression, over-writing and vague statements, which, in the case of "Ute liked animals but not in an emotional way" followed two pages later by "Wild animals were not her thing", can also seem contradictory.

The front cover carries a ringing endorsement by Emily Perkins, while on the back Mary McCallum identifies "a primal howl at [the novel's] core that echoes long after reading". Sadly, I found myself out of earshot.

VILLA PACIFICA, by Kapka Kassabova (Penguin, $39).

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