According to the publicity for Peter Grandbois’ first novel, he’s the second coming of Gabriel García Márquez. Now, why publicists would want to burden a debut novel with that sort of baggage, I haven’t any idea, especially considering how many people have copies of The General in His Labyrinth that haven’t been read beyond the third chapter.
Readers shouldn’t let the comparison scare them off. Though The Gravedigger may not quite live up to the hype, it is a compelling story, with elements of the fabulous woven throughout and a plot and characters that don’t necessarily require a score sheet to track. And unlike any novel by García Márquez, I was able to read this through in one long afternoon.
Grandbois, who will be joining the faculty in the English department at CSUS in the fall, uses many of the literary devices one would associate with magical realism, which is undoubtedly where the comparisons arise (one would hope that it’s not merely because of the Hispanic names and setting). The novel’s protagonist, Juan Rodrigo, is the village gravedigger. A widower, he lives just beyond the village boundary with his young daughter. Rodrigo has a gift particular to the family of gravediggers from which he is descended: He speaks with the ghosts of the recently departed, helps them find the truth of their lives and then tells their stories for their families.
Such a gift is not without its drawbacks, for he knows enough of the village’s secrets to make the citizens uncomfortable—and he carries the burden of deciding what the grieving families and the community at large need to know about each dead person in order to heal. He’s not necessarily happy about this responsibility, but he’s become accustomed to it.
Grandbois has crafted a wonderful story that is in fact about the act of storytelling. He raises questions about the ethics of telling stories—for instance, Rodrigo’s daughter, Esperanza, born as her mother was dying, claims to want stories that are both beautiful and truthful. Rodrigo, aware that the one may exclude the other, attempts to find a middle ground that will please her.
The Gravedigger also approaches, from a variety of perspectives, the power of storytelling and the story itself. In this respect, the novel is perhaps more reminiscent of the tradition of Scheherazade, with a story for every purpose and occasion. In some cases, stories take on a healing power. Some of Rodrigo’s stories bring justice to a village that needs all the help it can get. Others are merely amusing tales of comeuppance, as the lofty are brought low and the low elevated. And because the novel is made up of stories within stories woven into one larger tale, its denouement is truly satisfying.
Yes, the book has a woman everyone thinks is a witch, another woman who can talk to birds and of course a gravedigger who converses with ghosts—but it has more the tenor of a fable than of the wandering, language-driven narratives that make up the work of García Márquez. That’s not a bad thing. We have a García Márquez. What’s really wonderful is to make the welcome discovery of a Grandbois.