Monday, March 10, 2014

The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani

The Secret History of Las Vegas
Chris Abani
336 pages
Penguin Books
Published January 7, 2014

I just got back from Las Vegas. No kidding. And I meant to write this review from that city because it would be fitting and somehow right, but things don't go as planned in Las Vegas and I didn't write this review. So now I am home and here we are.

The Secret History of Las Vegas is a lyrical, beautiful novel about monsters, the weight of history, and looking for meaning in an empty place.

How do I even begin to describe what this book is about? I've read maybe twenty plot summaries and none really capture what awaits the reader between the covers. We can start with bodies being dumped near the shores of Lake Mead and a pair of conjoined twins named Fire and Water. There's the detective named Salazar and the doctor named Sunil. Throw in the deliberate creation of psychopaths, the horrors of apartheid, two love triangles, a revenge story, and the human fall-out from nuclear testing in the Nevada desert.

I've been turning this book over in my head for a few weeks. When I read something I really love, it's as if I've been poked in the happy part of my brain and I've been flooded with the joy of new discovery. It usually takes me a little while to emerge from the after-glow and figure out what the author was trying to tell me. A good story is always fun, but what's the message?

I'm not sure I've completely figured out The Secret History of Las Vegas, but I've had some insights: The first being that this is much more of a Gothic horror than a mystery. While there are certainly elements of mystery, the novel hits most of the characteristics of Gothic horror, including the concept of the setting acting as a character in the novel. Additionally, the conjoined twins, Fire and Water, are especially interesting because they're not only fascinating as characters, but they also act as a physical manifestation of each character's dark truths. To elaborate much further would spoil the plot, but I'm tempted to re-read the book with this idea in mind.

Apart from the scenes with Fire and Water, my favorite parts of The Secret History of Las Vegas were the scenes from Sunil's youth in apartheid-era South Africa. I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I wasn't too familiar with the history of apartheid before I read Abani's novel, but the story of White Alice and the horrors of Vlakplaas led me to more reading and research on the history of apartheid in South Africa. It's always a good thing when a book turns you on to history and expands your experience.

My very favorite books are the ones that take a while to unpack and slowly reveal their secrets and The Secret History of Las Vegas is definitely one of those books. Highly recommended.

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