Wednesday, May 18, 2011

REVIEW: What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Munoz

What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Muñoz. Published 2011 by Algonquin. Literary Fiction.

What You See in the Dark, Manuel Muñoz's new novel, is one of those moody California books about lost souls finding their way in an inhospitable landscape. The narrative revolves around two women: Teresa and Arlene, and how their lives are turned inside out by the same man. Teresa is a pretty girl who works at the shoe store until she catches the eye of Dan Watson, the town catch of Bakersfield, California, but the affair, which becomes the talk of the town, goes bad. As his mother Arlene slides into late middle age, the tragedy Dan, her son, sets in motion triggers something dark in her, too, leaving her unable to cope with the changes and decisions she faces. Meanwhile, a famous actress comes to town to film a movie about a gruesome murder.

The book is absolutely steeped in atmosphere. Everyone is striving for something, hungry for love, for respect, for something better than what they have. Teresa wants Dan and the trappings of middle class life he represents; Arlene, the book's most moving figure, seems to feel herself slipping into obsolescence and wants to be relevant- important- to someone. Muñoz contrasts their lives with that of the actress, trying to carve out her own place in the film. She struggles to flesh out the character she's playing, a woman at the end of bad love affair, only to find out that she may not really be that important to the important Hollywood movie she's filming.

I really enjoyed reading What You See in the Dark. I love the way Muñoz gets into the head of these women. I loved the scene in the shoe store when we learn that Teresa is required to enter through the back door whereas her pretty coworker Candy can come in through the front, and have her boyfriend wait outside, too. When Teresa responds to this humiliation, and others, by stealing a beautiful pair of boots, we can understand her anger even if we don't quite agree with her response. Later, when Arlene misses out on a chance for love, we can feel the sting of her regret as easily as we can understand how she makes her decisions. Teresa's story is sad but I think the real tragedy lies with poor Arlene, who's left to deal with the aftermath alone. What You See is a moving, engaging and well-written read perfect for a hot summer's day- preferably a muggy one, with a dense rolling fog coming in off the ocean. Read it for the atmosphere, the characters and the heartbreak.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.