No 365 Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney #WITmonth

Much of the Latin American fiction that I have read has featured a blending of the real and the imagined, leaving the reader to decide where the dividing line is. This debut novel from Valeria Luiselli build on this idea, featuring a narrator whose reality becomes entwined with the life of the Mexican poet Gilberto Owen and with the very fiction she, and he, are writing.

Faces in the Crowd is an original and at times arresting book, unique and hard to classify and always reminding the reader that they are being played with on multiple levels. Luiselli has created a fantastically unreliable narrator and as a writer, she celebrates trickery, but for me, the highly original parts of this novel don’t necessarily add up to a gratifying whole.

The nameless narrator is a woman who lives in Mexico City. She is married, not particularly happily, to an architect and together they have two children. In order to carve out her own space, she is writing a novel, or maybe it is a memoir, about her time working for a publisher of translated fiction in New York and her growing obsession with (real-life) Mexican poet Gilberto Owen, a marginal figure in the Harlem Renaissance whom she wishes to see published again.

We learn about her peripatetic life in New York, her random group of friends and lovers and her attempts to have Owen published, but as her obsession with him grows, she begins to see him on the subway and their lives begin to mirror one another’s.

Gradually, Owen enters the narrative, first as this ‘ghost’ on subway trains, but then in a series of flashbacks which detail his unhappy time in New York, as an acquaintance of Lorca and Nella Larsen, always on the periphery of greatness. He too begins to see a woman on the subway – our narrator – despite the fact that he is slowly going blind and the line between the teller and the subject of the story blurs further.

Perhaps it’s right that words contain nothing, or almost nothing. That their content is, at the very least, variable.

It is impossible to trust anything in this novel. The narrator is continuously interrupted by her husband, who is reading her manuscript when she is not at home and asking her why she is including things that are not real. He moves to Philadelphia for work, mirroring Owen’s move to Philadelphia, and his voice enters the narrative to explore what will happen to the couple in the future.

Faces in the Crowd is a labyrinthine artifice, which plays with ideas of memory, voice and truth, without ever settling on one solid reading. Luiselli flits through narrative voices, eras and places, always juggling possibilities and always raising more questions that she does answers.

It is undoubtedly a clever book, but I never felt entirely connected to it. At times, the narrative and even the narrative voice, is so slippery that I had no idea which character was speaking and even though the book bristles with a humorous intelligence, it felt like Luiselli was trying just a little bit too hard at times. The historical passages about Gilberto Owen’s time in New York also fell a bit flat for me and took me out of the dream-like world of the narrator.

The book is expertly translated by Christina MacSweeney, whose light touch deftly navigates the changes in voice, place and time with an impressive skill, capturing the elusive and ever-changing atmosphere of the original work.

While some aspects of the book didn’t work for me, Luiselli’ s talent shines through and I would definitely explore more of her writing.

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13 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Well said. “the narrative and even the narrative voice, is so slippery that I had no idea which character was speaking” I think this would have made me throw it back. I do like the premise though–very interesting. I read one that was pretty odd, Portrait of an Unknown Lady that I thought would be for WITMonth but came early and just didn’t do it for me. Your book sounds like it would go with my “surreal” novel lol


  2. I read this some time ago in Dutch translation and it blew my mind! In other words, I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but I loved it. It was one of those books that I had so much to say about, that I never quite got round to writing a review. I would read anything she’s written.


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