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The Mapmaker’s Opera
by Béa Gonzalez
HarperCollins
277 pages, $24.95

reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted May 11, 2005

Many novels have an operatic quality to them, a sense of literary melodrama that makes the characters and events they describe seem larger than they really are. In The Mapmaker’s Opera, Béa Gonzalez, a Torontonian born in Spain, actually adopts the structure of an opera; she divides the book into three Acts with chapters designated as Scenes, lists the characters under Dramatis Personae (even referring to them as Sopranos, Tenors, Contraltos, etc.), and includes an Overture at the beginning and a Curtain Call at the end. It is an interesting convention that ideally should enhance the essential story of the novel, but in reality, does little other than distract from it.

The book possesses all of the fundamentals needed by any good story, whether novel or opera. First, we meet Emilio Garcia, a seminary student in Seville, Spain, who does not want to become a priest but has been pushed into it by his mother. Emilio loves reading English literature, and because of his English speaking abilities, gives tours of the local cathedral. There, he meets Monica Clemente, a girl from La Mancha who has been sent to Seville to work as a governess for Don Ricardo Medina, a rich lord. Don Ricardo, however, has taken advantage of her; she is pregnant. Monica goes to the cathedral daily to pray that Don Ricardo’s wife will die so that he will be free to marry Monica. When Don Ricardo finds out about her pregnancy, however, he kicks her out. Emilio, who has fallen in love with her watching her pray so fervently every day, persuades her to marry him. She gives birth to a son, Diego, and they raise him as their own.

This is all essentially back story because Diego is the main character, “the principal tenor,” of this opera. As Diego grows up, he develops a love for maps and birds. He discovers a skill to draw portraits of birds that takes him to the Yucatan to work with an ornithologist who is compiling a book of Mexican birds. Arriving in Merida shortly before the Mexican Revolution, Diego falls in love with Sofia, a passionate, intelligent woman held down by the restrictive chauvinism of the time and place where she lives.

This story is rich with potential, but apart from the structural references already mentioned above, it little resembles an opera. Characters never break into song, for instance, and the book generally reads like a straightforward novel. The occasional references that remind us of the opera convention are usually jarring, as in this sample from Act Two:

“Now look more closely still, for there are other things you should notice as well. Those things that will have grave consequences for how this story will play out in the end. Like over there, stage left, for instance—notice those young men dressed in black with the look of romantic poets, their frames emaciated, their faces pale … Remember them, keep them ready in a corner of your mind, for they are not as much ‘fifth business’ as harbingers of the change that is in the air already, waiting, suspended, for the explosion that will take place in Mexico City almost a year from this day.”

This sort of meddlesome intrusion might work if it were used consistently throughout the book. Instead, the sporadic occurrences feel like a busybody narrator interrupting the story to point out a detail.

Taken purely as a novel, however, The Mapmaker’s Opera has plenty going for it. Gonzalez handles the story deftly. Her characters are compelling, complex creations, and her descriptions of Seville and the Yucatan are vivid. If it weren’t for the operatic convention getting in the way, this novel might earn a standing ovation.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer currently working on his first novel.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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