4 out of 4 stars
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Turbulent times can feel apocalyptic. When a natural disaster strikes, the systems of recent centuries can seem fragile compared with ancient powers or laws. These and other themes are examined in a fictional way in El Paso by Michael Van Cleve.
The novel gets off to an alarming start for protagonist Larona Shah. In the aftermath of her best friend's suicide and boyfriend's murder, she is kidnapped by would-be human traffickers. Things are looking bleak for Larona when more powerful forces intervene. After escaping her captors during a flood, she is washed up outside a church. How will the priest help her heal and find refuge from the criminals?
I loved the images of Larona being swept along by the floodwaters on a purple couch, for that part of the story was in comic form. Through what the author rightly terms an experimental approach, the story is narrated using a mix of pictures, documents like court reports, text messages, and more. This caused rapid changes in perspective, which had the drawback of making me feel distanced from the characters. On the one hand, I would have liked to get to know them better by staying with them for longer. Larona developed slightly, but the impact the events had on her could have been explored more. On the other hand, the switching did make for an exhilarating pace. The author signposted everything clearly and gave readers enough to work with.
As the reader has to piece together the story from different sources, some concentration is required to follow it. I thoroughly appreciated that aspect. Perhaps because it demands reader alertness, this is a thought-provoking tale. For example, Larona's boyfriend Michael was a soldier with passionate religious beliefs. This theme is developed through an exploration of what it means to be a warrior that also moves into spiritual terrain. With a focus more on spiritual aspects than anything specific to any religion, this book could suit those of all religions or none.
If you're interested in such themes and would enjoy a mixed-media thriller, this one is for you. It might not appeal to those who prefer more traditional storytelling approaches. As you will have gathered from the summary, the subject matter is heavy. Topics include substance abuse and graphically depicted violence. As a result, this book would not be recommended for younger or more sensitive readers. In that vein, there is also some strong language.
The language is not gratuitous as it accurately reflects the way the characters would talk. The author showed great creativity in imagining social media conversations and posts, for example. One exchange was complete with an "A**hole in The Comments Section"; this character was perhaps more of a devil's advocate than a troll.
In keeping with the realistic language, the various texts include some spelling and grammatical errors. As these can be considered plausible representations of the characters' writing levels, I categorized them as "uncounted". As a result, I did not deduct a star in this regard; counted errors weren't an issue. Although it won't suit all tastes, this work deserves four out of four stars. This is because it is so imaginative, novel, and mentally stimulating. The packaging is attractive too, with exquisite work by the artists.
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