The Lost Book of Adana Moreau
by Michael Zapata
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 4, 2020
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I received an e-ARC of this title from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Michael Zapata's debut novel, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, will be published in one month, February 4. It's a remarkable story of hope and vision, of love, family, and friendship, but also of sorrow and loss. At once a vast epic and an intimate personal journey. Or I should say, multiple journeys. Throughout the reading I debated whether I should treat this like all the other books I've reviewed, or whether it should be placed in the newly created Non-SF section of the site. I chose the latter, although it could go either way. The speculative fiction in this book is actually fictional books within the book, solely in the imagination of the characters, rather than that of the reader. Or not. Take your pick. In either case, it is a brilliant debut, and highly recommended.
Adana is a young Dominican woman, a refugee from that island after her parents are killed, eventually settling in New Orleans in the early 1920s. She falls in love with and marries Titus Moreau, a black man who claims to be a pirate, and in fact will be consdered the Last Pirate of the New World once his mentor, "the old mad pirate," passes. Adana and Titus have a son, Maxwell. Adana is an avid reader, fond of science fiction and fantasy, but also history and poetry. Through a friendship with a librarian she is exposed to more books, as well as a newspaper story of Percy Fawcett's ill-fated expedition to find the Lost City of Z in the Amazonian forest, which inspires her to write her first novel. Lost City is published by a small press in 1929, is well reviewed, sells out its thousand copy run quickly, and even gets an excerpt printed in Weird Tales. In the novel, the Dominicana heroine finds the lost city in an alternate universe and disappears into it. Adana writes a sequel, A Model Earth, which is about the Dominicana's son's search for his mother. A Model Earth is never published. Tragically, Adana falls prey to an unknown illness, and just before her death she and Maxwell burn the manuscript.
The book alternates from past to present, and from the perspective of several different characters. One of the other tracks is in Chicago late in 2004, where Saul Drower prepares for the death of his grandfather, Benjamin. The elder Drower, whose real name is Benjaminas Druer, is a journalist and archivist. One of his last requests is for Saul to ship a package to Maxwell Moreau at the Universidad de Chile. After Benjamin's death, the package is returned as undeliverable as addressed. Saul opens the package to find a manuscript entitled A Model Earth by Adana Moreau. In his grandfather's bedroom he also finds a first edition copy of Lost City. He reads both it and the manuscript. Saul is also a science fiction fan, suprised that his grandfather had been as well. He embarks on a search for information on both Adana Moreau and Maxwell, whom he discovers is a astrophysicist who had written controversial books on the possibility of alternate universes. He sets out to find Maxwell and return the manuscript to him, as Benjamin had intended.
There are many tales of loss. Adana's loss of her parents, and of her homeland. The loss of her life, which causes Titus to leave Maxwell in the care of the old mad pirate to travel to Chicago in search of work. After letters from Titus stop coming, Maxwell journeys to Chicago to find him. Maxwell tells of his trip to Chicago by jumping rail cars, fraught with betrayals by other hoboes and the cruelty of railroad cops. In Chicago he is unsuccessful in finding his father, but meets and befriends Benjamin, whose father Saul tells of his flight from Russia after the revolution, how Benjamin had been born on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic, and of the death of his wife shortly after they arrived in America. There are many other stories along the way; the parents of Saul (the younger) are killed by a sniper's bullets in Tel Aviv, and Benjamin brings him to Chicago to live with him. Adana's doctor, a Welshman, tells of his life in the coal mines; Javier, a journalist friend of Saul Drower's, tells of his journeys to many war-torn areas around the globe, and later helps Saul find Maxwell, who has returned to New Orleans. And in NOLA, there is the devastating losses brought on by Katrina. But no matter how much loss all of these people suffer, they are also buoyed by the aid they are able to extend to those in need, as well as the caring they receive from others. Tragedy and redemption go hand in hand, hope in the midst of despair.
Adana loved Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, and H. P. Lovecraft. Saul read everything from Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, to Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany. Many others are mentioned, including some Latin-American authors, with a few fictional ones thrown in too. In this way, but only in this way, it reminded me a bit of Jo Walton's Among Others. Nothing in their plots is similar, only the characters' love of imaginative literature. I kept expecting it to develop into a genre story, that maybe Maxwell had found a way into an alternate universe, or that was where the lost manuscript came from. Just because that didn't happen doesn't alter the fact that the provenance of the manuscript is just as remarkable. No, this should be considered literary fiction because it is set in the real world. The fact that several of the characters read and/or write science fiction and fantasy does not make it science fiction or fantasy. However, it should appeal to readers who do love the speculative genres. I hope that tangential appeal does not alienate those who normally don't like SF. This deserves everyone's attention.
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