In 2015, Brazilian-born Daniel Galera’s first novel appeared in English. Despite its silly, sensationalist title, “Blood-Drenched Beard” turned out to be a serious read — a taut, psychological drama about old wounds, fresh scars and an “existentialist-materialist swimmer’s” hunt for answers to a perplexing family tragedy in a small Brazilian beach town.
Two years later comes Galera’s second novel in English, one that boasts a superior title and a similar intoxicating display of complex characters, palpable tension and verbal dexterity. As with its predecessor, “The Shape of Bones” tracks, and revolves around, the singular mind-set and struggles of a nameless young man.
Galera splits his narrative in two, chopping and changing his timeline, revealing in one chapter his protagonist running wild in his youth and in the next an older, supposedly wiser incarnation running away in the present in search of closure and meaning.
When we first encounter him, he is a 10-year-old daredevil cyclist who takes a tumble and is comforted by an old, witchlike woman. “You know there’s good blood and bad blood, don’t you?” she tells him, studying his bleeding knee.
He is unaffected by the sight of blood and grows up to be a plastic surgeon. But Galera doesn’t follow him at work. When he cuts to the present, it is to show his hero setting out on an expedition — “the biggest adventure of his life” — to the Bolivian Andes to climb an unknown, unscaled mountain.
He leaves at dawn and drives to pick up his friend Renan. Along the way, he casts back to his intensive medical training, replays his daughter’s touch-and-go birth and examines his marriage to Adri, which has neither stalled nor crashed but is running on autopilot. In the alternating childhood chapters, he experiences all manner of scrapes and rites of passage: beach parties, soccer matches, bike competitions, pitched battles — and an eye-watering romantic clinch.
It is when the young man drives through the neighborhood he grew up in that he reflects on the one dark incident that tarnished his childhood and wrenched him into adulthood. Seeing violence outside on the street, he pulls over, grabs his ice ax and heads off to right a wrong.
“The Shape of Bones” begins ominously, with that spillage of good and bad blood. We read on, lulled by the ripples from calm memories and events, yet at the same time aware of an undercurrent of disquiet which is gradually strengthening into something more threatening.
When violence finally erupts, it is cruel and merciless and tests the resolve of a “solitary renegade” who is haunted by the past and plagued by guilt.
Beautifully translated by Alison Entrekin, Galera’s novel is a powerful evocation of one man’s rough, reckless childhood and his efforts to break free and give in to his desire “to take on and be taken on by the world.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Shape of Bones
By: Daniel Galera, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin.
Publisher: The Penguin Press, 228 pages, $25.