Hello readers and welcome back to the fifth entry of this year’s Reading List. As mentioned last time I am focused on my backlog of “old white dude” authors since setting aside the Reading List last year. To that end I got to a novel I’ve wanted to read for years, Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 book Under the Volcano. This was a very challenging read but worth it for a variety of reasons.
The book details one life in the day of Consul Geoffry Firmin in the town of Quauhnahuac, Mexico as he struggles with his roving alcoholism and the presence of his ex-wife Yvonne and his half brother Hugh. The day in question happens to be the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead, and that theme weaves it way throughout the narrative as while very little happens there is an abundance of thematic, sensory and emotional elements throughout this difficult novel. In fact I have not read any such book like this since Mrs. Dalloway, another from roughly the same time period and a novel that takes place within a day’s time. The volcanoes alluded to in the title loom large over the Consul and his various perambulations through cantinas and bars throughout the novel and give a sort of elemental sheen to the writing as they are referenced multiple times. Some chapters are narrated by other characters in which we get to see their backstories (Hugh as a guitar player and sailor; Yvonne as an actress). The Consul is haunted by schizophrenia-esque voices that plague him over his drinking and we are bestowed an inside look at his deteriorating reality. Yvonne and Hugh go on a horse ride and later they all take a bus where they witness an Indian man who was assaulted and lies bloody on the ground. We are privy to the Consul’s reading of postcards from Yvonne and his interior monologues regretting his life decisions and drunkenness.
As stated this book was quite a heavy lift on an emotional and symbolic level and I have to admit a lot of it went over my head as I was reading it. I caught the main thrust of the narrative but Lowry’s prose goes all over the map when it comes to allusions and other thematic elements that lead strongly in the character’s lives. That being said it was still a powerful read and one that will stick with me for some time even if I failed to absorb every bit of its nuance. Faustus apparently plays a big role as well as the number seven, which is branded on a horse. I would recommend this novel only to those seeking out a difficult yet rewarding read, one that probably pays out even more upon multiple re-readings. I found an interesting website that breaks down the various themes of the narrative that would be helpful to anyone wishing to fully understand this masterful book.
Since this book took a long while to read and was fairly exhausting I decided up next I’m going to pivot to a type of genre I haven’t hit since the first year of this whole Reading List experiment - the “cozy” mystery novel. My wife recommended the first a book in a series she’s been reading (Noodle Shop Mystery): Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien. So stay tuned for a more lighthearted affair on the next stop. And as always, thanks for reading.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.