A hauntingly impressive epic that plays with voice and form to create something truly unique and delicious.
What if a book were written in a mixture of first, second and third person? And what if it used a framing device around a framing device around sometimes another framing device? And what if it did those things driftingly, fluidly, without feeling the need to mark them always, just trusting the reading to flow along with it and follow its lead?
And what if, while doing this, it managed to be astonishingly beautiful?
Simon Jimenez answers those questions with The Spear Cuts Through Water.
It's a story told in a theatre of dream. It's also a story of the old country told by a grandmother to her grandchild who has never seen the land she tells him of. It is a story experienced by the reader in vivid closeness and cool remove, in intimate emotionality and handed down, worn-through retelling, wending through time and person but at the same time, told directly to the reader, grabbing their attention and dragging them inside the theatre, the grandmother's kitchen, and a distant, fantastical history all at once.
In case it isn't clear - I think it is fantastic.
The bulk of the story is told in the second person, directed at a young man whose name we never know. He has grown up on tales told to him of the old country by his lola, whom we see in his recollections, one of which is around the inverted theatre, a place one can only reach through dreams, and only once. He finds himself there, holding a spear passed down through the generations of his family, to watch a story of five days unfold on stage, amongst the other dreamers who have been pulled into the audience alongside him.
The story they see is that of two men on a journey through a country in chaos, on a quest that neither of them really understand, forced into each other's company by circumstance and the need to survive. They must stop the three Terrors - the sons of the emperor - and get a precious cargo away from the imperial city and out to the east, to the shore of the sea where an unknown but promised force waits to rise in rebellion against the cruelties of the throne. But the parameters of their quest, and their individual reasons for doing so, shift constantly in the telling, as they discover more about their circumstances and the person they're travelling with.
Through their eyes and experiences, and through the unnamed audience to the telling of their story, and through his own recollections of how his lola told it, we triangulate our view of events, constantly re-evaluating just as the characters are. Events are framed by just what was happening when the listener was first told it, his own emotional responses to it, how it links him to his family and the events of his childhood, the tellings and the retellings and his own passing on of the familiar stories. But his is not the only voice. Aside from him, from the infrequent intrusions of those putting the story on the stage, and from the moon goddess who makes her voice heard when needed, the story is webbed through with the unheard voices of the smaller characters that barely merit a mention in the main tale. The text may be interrupted at any time to give us the last thoughts of a man killed by the main characters, or the idle musing of a farmer in the background, speaking out directly, whether to us, to the listener or to the main characters themselves, we are never certain.
And that ambiguity is a defining feature of the book, and by far one of its greatest strengths. It takes a confident narrative to be willing to leave you with the kind of uncertainty Jimenez does, and a skilled one for that not to fall flat, but he manages both. He even goes so far as, at one point, showing us a character who has a defining personal characteristic, showing him tell another character the story of it, and then having it, in as many words, tell us that that story is none of our business. We must live with not knowing, make up our own version if we want, but accept that some parts of the characters, some elements of their inner lives are forbidden to us, even as so much of them is bared on the stage/in the tale for us to see.
The other key strengths are more around the technical aspects of the telling - the use of person and voice, and that of form. The two stand is something of an opposition to each other, and also, in the case of form, with itself. In some ways, its form and framing is rigid - the book is divided into five days plus a beginning and an end, representing the five days of the journey across this chaotic country. There's a stage upon which the story is being played out, a viewer among an audience watching it. But there's also the grandmother. And the way the story flips between the stage and the recollection and the telling is unpredictable, even as it flitters within these set boundaries. The use of voices too, is inconstant. Whether it's the narrative on stage, the listener's memories, the lola herself, the moon goddess or the unquiet background characters, there is a perpetual fluctuation of who is telling this story and who is listening to it or watching it - is it at a remove, or immediate; is it happening now, or in the distant past, or entirely fictionally? And you would think this might leave the reader unbalanced and uncertain... and it does... but. But. Jimenez manages his prose so seamlessly, the transitions so delicately, that you somehow don't even notice, even as you are constantly aware of this multifold version of events.
Even aside from these more unusual craft choices, the prose is poised and graceful. It's not a book to rattle through at pace - the language needs to be digested quietly, just as each word has so obviously been chosen with care for its place in the story. Given how much it's a story about storytelling, this feels so absolutely fitting.
And that is, in some way, the core of the story - the story itself, looping back and around, through history and myth and moving across the world. It's also about family, the good and the bad. Identity. War. Obligations, whether to ourselves or to other people. Changing, growing, and remaining the same. Sacrifices. But, above all, to quote the story itself, at beginning and end: This is a love story to its blade-dented bone.
In short, this is a masterpiece in the art and the craft of storytelling. Jimenez has created something truly beautiful here, to be savoured and pored over, and which I have no doubt will reward reread after reread, layered as it is with so many different and delightful things. It isn't simple, it isn't easy, and nor is it small, it's a book that requires an amount of commitment and dedication from the reader. But that effort will give you such a pay-off it is absolutely worth every moment.
Baseline Assessment: 10/10
Bonuses: +many playing with form and voice and framing devices is just A* work
Nerd Coefficient: 10/10
Reference: Simon Jimenez, The Spear Cuts Through Water [Del Rey, 2022]
POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea