three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
15-Mar-Apr-2005
By: 
Anita Desai
user_rating: 
0

A-ZigZagEric is a Harvard graduate student still toiling on his thesis topic: immigration. When his scientist girlfriend embarks on a research trip to central Mexico, Eric goes along. He doesn’t speak the language, and all he knows about the area comes from his grandfather’s stories of working as a miner in the Sierra Madre. While his girlfriend is wrapped up in her studies, Eric wanders aimlessly, eventually meeting Doña Vera, the powerful widow of a mining baron. Past and present collide as Eric uncovers relics from his grandparents’ tale.
Houghton Mifflin. 160 pages. $23. ISBN: 0618042156

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Desai creates a full-bodied, incarnated world of alien soil, death and revenge, finding oneself and losing self-delusions. At the same time her social conscience carefully registers the inequities and oppression of the Spanish and the mine owners in Mexico." Sam Coale

Orlando Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Skillfully interwoven subplots and substantial secondary characters give the story texture and depth. … But if The Zigzag Way fails to reach a destination, it seduces readers with the richness of the journey itself." Adinah Greene

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a hypnotic journey unfolding in time and space but tracing its origin to a single memory." Sandip Roy

St. Petersburg Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Desai lived for a while in Mexico. That, and her wonderful way with words, explains the truth and beauty with which she describes the country’s folk culture and its desert terrain."
Ellen Emry Heltzel

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s all potentially corny stuff, but Desai pulls it together with economy and grace. And yet, despite this, the novel has the feel of being worked up from a tidbit stumbled upon in an archive or a guidebook, then trained along a trellis of neatly diagrammed meaning rather than allowed to grow wild in a thicket of character and situation." Jennifer Schuessler

Critical Summary

Desai invokes her renowned lush, and occasionally dense, prose to portray Eric’s sensory overload here. She obviously speaks with intimate knowledge of the land, and this, combined with the wealth of historical detail, prompt several critics to sing her praises. More importantly, as The New York Times notes, The Zigzag Way is "not just a condensed course in 20th-century Mexican history but a meditation on the futility of our efforts to outrun the past." In other words, Desai does her job. Eric is a bit too passive as a narrator, and the slim novel does skip deep character development, but what’s here is very good.

Also by the Author

Clear Light of Day (1980): Award Star Booker Prize Finalist. Desai looks at modern India and one family’s struggles to overcome its past. A sister who stayed home to care for her autistic brother resents her other siblings now returning for a wedding.