It has been a while since we had a truly captivating trouble-in-paradise novel. Finally one comes along, courtesy of Colombian author Tomás González.
Originally written and published in Spanish more than 30 years ago and finally translated into English by the ever-dependable Frank Wynne, "In the Beginning Was the Sea" tells of how a couple trade the big smoke of Medellín for a quiet coastal retreat, only to find over time that their promised land is a far cry from what they imagined.
All starts off relatively well. Young intellectuals J. and Elena buy their finca (ranch) and renovate the ramshackle house into a habitable mansion. They befriend and utilize the help of the locals: odd-job-man Gilberto, boatman Julito and fisherman Salomón. An easy, less frenetic lifestyle in the sun seems attainable.
But clouds gather when J. is plagued by financial woes and Elena grows bored and fractious with the villagers, the seclusion and "the hateful roar of the sea." Their various enterprises — running a shop, a lumber business, a cattle farm — are beset by difficulties in getting underway that harden into lasting problems. Eventually, J. becomes prone to alcohol-fueled bouts of violence, irrationality and self-pity, which in turn forces Elena to take drastic measures to save her own sanity.
González impresses with his enactment of initial dream and subsequent nightmare. His tropical idyll is expertly depicted through a succession of richly conveyed sights and sounds — and also smells. One whole page is infused with one scent after another: "The musky, resinous smell of crabs, dead and still raw. … The lunchtime smell of fried fish, fried plantains, the heavy scent of coconut rice. … The smell of freshly opened books — the pages bloating and buckling in the humid heat, spines falling apart from the salt breeze."
Early into the novel, González jolts us by mentioning a bedroom where "later still, the corpse would be bathed." Baffled but forewarned, we read on, only to discover shortly afterward another, more specific portent of death: "The rains came and so began the first of the two winters J. would spend on the finca; the first of his last two winters on Earth."
Readers who favor surprises may write off these glimpses into the future as spoilers. The rest of us will realize that González's scattered premonitions of dread have a propulsive effect that changes the whole tone and shade of the proceedings and keep us hooked and intrigued as to the nature of his characters' fates.
Based on a true story, "In the Beginning Was the Sea" is a gripping cautionary tale about how hard, cruel reality sooner or later impinges upon our seemingly imperishable fantasies. It is González's first book to be published in English. If this is a measure of what he is capable of, with luck there will be many more.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.