It’s rare I come across a book that scratches my every itch. From plot to prose, this is a very “me” book. It’s a book about the thrill and nuance of literary translation with the pace of a James Bond movie and the sparkle of magical realism. Yes: Ways to Disappear checks every box.
The premise is simple: Emma, an assistant professor in her 30s, is stuck in a stale relationship in Pittsburgh with one of literature’s most convincingly repugnant boyfriends. Repugnant in the sense that he’s just incredibly dull and self-satisfied; repugnant in the sense that he’s normal. Her life comes alive only when she’s translating the work of Beatriz Yagoda, Brazilian short story writer, whose work is acclaimed but flies under the radar — especially in the United States, where it’s taken on as a charity case by publishers. The Brazilian writer weaves surreal, magical stories that Novey explains in delightful detail.
Well, as tends to happen in novels, something happens to our friendly protagonist that conveniently thrusts her out of her boring Pittsburgh life and into a sweltering, high-stakes environment where anything (including adventure, and love affairs with handsome Brazilian sons of writers) is possible. One day, the author climbs up into a tree and disappears. Her two children are distraught; the last thing they want is their mother’s weird translator flying down to Rio and making things more complicated. And yet, there she is — making things more complicated.
“Desire, Beatriz had written, was what a man will deny himself until he can’t.”
The novel’s narration switches between the disappeared author, her hilariously pretentious editor (graced with the heavy nobility of a literary sensibility), her two children — both incredibly different, and with reason, Emma, and Beatriz herself. All of this leads up to the crescendo revealing where Beatriz went, why she disappeared, and how the characters
Though the story has the fast pace of a romp, at the core is a deep tragedy which shaped the Yagoda family’s lives and Beatriz’s writing. That is just to say, it’s not all light-hearted, and that’s what makes an otherwise outlandish premise convincing — each character’s personality twists from the ashes of tragedy. Plus, it’s treally well written. Novey is a poet, and it shows. Though she comes to the novel with a real sense in plot, she delights in language just as much as her protagonist does.