Review by Kelly Thompson
Retribution is the debut novel by Carmen Rodriguez, the accomplished poet and short story writer. Already familiar with her work, and having read the titillating back cover copy, I was excited to crack the spine of this book. The novel tells the story of three generations of women who live in Chile before, during and after the military coup in 1973. It is told through the eyes of all three women and depicts their eventual flee to Vancouver, where they discover new life, albeit, not easily. The novel, as it turns out, is hauntingly similar to Rodriguez’s own life story, which can only mean I am in for one hell of a literary ride.
At the heart of this novel is an excellent story, woven using the creative and powerful method of three different female narratives. Part of the heart-wrenching aspect of the novel is that although this is a work of fiction, the novel surrounds an actual event that affected and ended so many Chilean lives.
Although the introduction to the story is wildly captivating, I quickly found myself desperate for Rodriguez to really set the scene for me; to allow me to escape into the story. It is obvious that Rodriguez knows and loves the areas she writes about, as the passion for her homeland is evident on every page. But she never quite manages to take me there, perhaps because the images are burnt so deeply into her own memory that relating them to others seems like a bit of an afterthought. I also found Rodriguez’s dialogue to be forced and formal, making it hard to engage deeply in the story when I was too busy thinking, “But people don’t really talk like that.”
What Carmen Rodriguez excels at is character development. With each new character, she weaves intricate stories aside from the main plot line that help readers gain insight into the persona of each person, their characteristics and their traits. It is these moments that rejuvenate the book and help the reader to connect to the story, developing genuine compassion for the plight of the people of Chile, not just the characters in the novel.
Although there are some weaknesses in this book, what revives it are snippets of Rodriguez’s poetry, strewn throughout the book in the most perfect and effective way. It is in these moments that Rodriguez shines, her talent becoming glaringly obvious as you get lost in each stanza. The poems give us even further insight into the characters, providing a real sense of their experiences, their hardships and their joys.
As writers, we have been told to “write what you know.” However, it would seem that Rodriguez is emotionally too close to Retribution‘s subject matter and so she never quite paints the picture that the reader needs in order to really connect with the story. This certainly isn’t to say that Rodriguez is without talent, however, it is her short story work and poetry that are stellar, whereas her novel debut leaves me wanting so much more.