Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: "Down the Rabbit Hole" by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I’ll admit that sometimes it is hard for me to rate a short book a full five star rating simply because there isn’t enough to talk about. I fully recommend short books (by short, I mean less than 100 pages); length has nothing to do with quality. But I’m sometimes at a loss to write 500 words on something so short without giving anything away or being painfully repetitive, but with this book, the barely 70 page debut novella of Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos, is not only great and thought-provoking, but has enough ideas and originality for me to discuss as in depth as it needs to be. Last year, I read Villalobos’ second novel Quesadillas, twice as big as this novel, making it barely 150 pages. It is a cute, crazy story about a large family, the aforementioned food in the title and space aliens. It was far from bad, but since it has been over a year since I have read it, I barely remember any of it. But nothing in that light-hearted book prepared me for this one, a brutal tale of a young boy growing up in a world where reputation is everything and the value of life is negotiable. Here, the book’s short length works to its advantage. You can read it in one sitting, and let its power envelope you for the short time you are reading it. The central character Tochtli is a young boy who lives in a palace. He is our narrator, and we learn about the world that he lives in and what makes him happy. He loves video games, wild, exotic animals, extravagant hats and samurai films. His father is always encouraging him and has friends over all the time, his mother is missing and besides his father, his best friend is his tutor. Through Tochtli’s viewpoint, we find out that his dad is a major drug lord, and is in danger of losing his empire. The most interesting part of this book is how Tochtli views this world around him, influenced not only by the violence in his own home, which he distinguishes by calling people he used to know that are now dead “corpses, but he is also influenced by the violence of the pop culture he ingests, mainly the many samurai films he watches. It’s not an indictment of media violence, but it shows that viewing it and living it make for a toxic developmental mix. It is quite scary sometimes, starting out like Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, but slowly becomes something blood chilling, much like a Francie Brady or Balram Halwai, as  Tochtli’s grip on reality becomes terrifying. The main narrative of the book concerns a trip to Liberia so Tochtli can get a rare Hippopotamus, and it provides a chilling scene of a loss of innocence, which leads to an ending that deftly mixes horror and sadness. Short, swift and brutal both emotionally and physically, this book leaves its mark even though its time is brief.
Rating: 5/5

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