In Daniel Alarcón’s AT NIGHT WE WALK IN CIRCLES, a nameless journalist tells the story of Nelson, a young actor in an unidentified South American country recovering from a civil war. Nelson grew up admiring a controversial theater group called Diciembre, which was well known for their tours taking theater across the rural countryside. Their leader and playwright of Diciembre’s The Idiot President was arrested and jailed for many years. Years after his release, Henry and his old friend Patalarga decide to tour the healing countryside with The Idiot President. Nelson, who is one of many actors auditioning for the coveted role of Henry’s son, is chosen to tour the rural parts of his country, which he has never seen.
In addition, Nelson is struggling to rekindle his relationship with former girlfriend Ixta while caring for his widowed mother, Mónica. Patalarga’s marriage is also on the rocks, and Nelson is dealing with his past lovers, ex-wife, fatherhood and past imprisonment.
"A book that knows exactly which details to give and which to withhold, AT NIGHT WE WALK IN CIRCLES is an engrossing novel populated with fully formed and flawed characters and creates a rich, complex reading experience."
There is a lot happening in the novel, but Alarcón deftly navigates the winding, complicated and crowded road that leads Nelson to his fate. He paints a detailed portrait of a country still haunted by their recent war. He does this by vividly describing both the landscape and the conditions of the cities and towns Diciembre visits, and by describing the people themselves. You see the divisions in towns, families, the theater troupe and relationships. You even see the fighting within a single character.
The journalist tells the story in a narrative nonfiction style, such as that of Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD. This means he is relying on the testimony of those involved, as well as Nelson’s journals and other documents. This style forces the reader to consider why particular characters report the events the way they do. What information are they holding back to protect themselves or others? Are they assuming too much? How much can any particular character be trusted? How trustworthy are the accounts in Nelson’s journal? And for that matter, how trustworthy is the narrator himself? This mode of storytelling allows for uncertainty and mystery to haunt the narrative.
Nelson, though the story revolves around him, is the least interesting character. Ixta, Henry, Patalarga, Mónica and others hold the reader’s attention as they reveal themselves while describing Nelson’s story.
The events of the novel build with each passing chapter. Because of the structure, the reader is able to infer some information about how the story will turn out. Alarcón knows when to share hints about what happens to each character and uses that as an engine, driving the reader’s interest not just in finding out what will happen, but in why and how.
Ultimately, the finale both surprises and satisfies. A book that knows exactly which details to give and which to withhold, AT NIGHT WE WALK IN CIRCLES is an engrossing novel populated with fully formed and flawed characters and creates a rich, complex reading experience.
Reviewed by Josh Mallory on November 1, 2013
At Night We Walk in Circles