At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón. Penguin/Riverhead Books, 2013. 372 pages; $27.95 (hardcover); reading level: adult.

Alarcón’s novel digs deeply into gritty issues like post-colonialism and the pervasive shadow cast by a brutal civil war, deftly juggling a tangle of themes and plot threads that would derail a less intrepid writer. 

And he does it all with keen insight both into his characters and into the historical events that shape their lives. He drops us into an unnamed South American country. We meet Henry, who, as a Conservatory student during the civil war, founded a radical theater company and wrote a play called The Idiot President. We meet Nelson, who, as an eight-year-old aspiring actor, heard Henry interviewed on the radio from the jail Henry was thrown into for staging his play. And we fast-forward, through the eyes of a narrator – unidentified until late in the book – as Henry (long ago released from prison) and Nelson (now a Conservatory student himself who’s just broken up with the love of his life) meet in the post-war year 2000 and take Henry’s 15-year-old play on tour. The prison theme is everywhere. Three of the characters do time on trumped up charges and, even for the characters who remain nominally free, their country is so scarred by drugs, corruption, the emigration of friends and family, and the lingering trauma of war that there is only so far choice will take them before they run into their own invisible walls. As the actors tour, the line between reality and imagination blurs; the plot twists are somehow both surprising and as inevitable as a Greek tragedy. Alarcón is straight with us: he repeatedly warns that things will not end well. But we are under his spell, turning the pages and hoping for the best anyway. What just happened? was my first thought, after reading the ending. When I picked through the last few pages, test-driving the various possibilities, I came to the conclusion that perhaps we readers are simply meant to join the characters…as they walk in circles at night.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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