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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Ways of Going Home

Alejandro Zambra

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To purchase Ways of Going Home

Title: Ways of Going Home
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 139 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Ways of Going Home - US
Formas de volver a casa - US
Ways of Going Home - UK
Ways of Going Home - Canada
Ways of Going Home - India
Personnages secondaires - France
Die Erfindung der Kindheit - Deutschland
Formas de volver a casa - España
  • Spanish title: Formas de volver a casa
  • Translated by Megan McDowell

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Our Assessment:

B : nice, reflective novella

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 12-1/2013 Clancy Martin
The Independent B- 29/1/2013 Richard Gwyn
The LA Times . 31/1/2013 Chris Barton
NZZ . 27/12/2012 Karl-Markus Gauss
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 31/3/2013 Adam Thirlwell
The Observer . 12/1/2013 Mina Holland
Publishers Weekly . 17/12/2012 .
The Telegraph . 24/1/2013 Adam O'Riordan
TLS . 25/1/2013 Matt Lewis

  From the Reviews:
  • "Zambra at his best offers an intimate recognition of his central characters, and he can evoke a setting succinctly. He works confidently within his preferred formula, but we can't escape the conclusion that Ways of Going Home is overly self-referential, and lacking depth or acuity. It is a readable but ultimately frustrating story aimed, like Bonsai, at a young adult market." - Richard Gwyn, The Independent

  • "Zambra finds an original way to evoke life in a time of oppression and political terror by turning his book inward, shifting between fiction and a sort of meta-memoir." - Chris Barton, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Alejandro Zambra hat einen leisen, behutsam sich vorantastenden Roman geschrieben, für den die Übersetzerin Susanne Lange im Deutschen die richtige Tonlage findet. Sein Leitmotiv ist nicht die Klage, die Empörung, auch nicht die Freude über eine spät gewonnene Gewissheit, sondern der Zweifel, der beständig präsent ist; der Zweifel, ob die überlieferten Dinge auch stimmen und die erfundenen keinen Verrat bedeuten, der Zweifel, ob der Roman tauglich ist, die Wahrheit mittels Erfindung aufzudecken." - Karl-Markus Gauss, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Zambra’s latest novel represents, I think, his deepest achievement. It is the most intricate of his experiments with brevity. (...) In this high-speed description, the novel might seem a minute study, a sketched memoir of the fallout from the Pinochet era. In fact, this small novel contains a surprising vastness, created by its structure of alternating chapters of fiction and reality (.....) Really, the meta­fictional is just a neutral mode like any other. It is capable of multiple uses. And in Ways of Going Home, Zambra uses the metafiction to create the most concision. It allows him to skip unnecessary scenes; to avoid composition of place -- to analyze his themes directly. It’s an instrument, therefore, not of modish skepticism but of truth-telling." - Adam Thirlwell, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Complex yet sophisticated, the novel places Zambra at the spearhead of a new Chilean fiction and sets him alongside other Latin American writers such as Colombia's Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who weave some of the continent's most difficult historical themes into an exciting modern art form." - Mina Holland, The Observer

  • "Zambra raises thoughtful questions about expectations for and the limitations of the redemptive possibilities of art. Unfortunately, the conclusion feels like a shortcut, less satisfying than the observations of either the boy or the man creating him. Overall, though, this compelling book brings the experiences of a generation to the page with haunting emotion and beautiful prose in a fine translation" - Publishers Weekly

  • "The novel has an air of insomniac attentiveness: a sharpened observation of daily routine, an accumulation of detail and interleaving of banality and profundity. Megan McDowell’s limpid and unfussy translation serves the book well. Zambra cannot simply be pigeonholed as a "Spanish-Language" writer. His concerns and influences are broader" - Adam O'Riordan, The Telegraph

  • "(T)he book is deceptively slight and finely wrought: it is both a wistful look at Chile's recent political history and a metafictional reflection on the nature of writing." - Matt Lewis, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his third novella to be translated into English, Alejandro Zambra again presents a story that is also about storytelling. It begins with the Zambra-aged (the author was born in 1975) narrator describing his childhood in what was still Pinochet's Chile, in the mid-1980s, including the time around the 1985 earthquake. But in the present-day second section it becomes clear that this first section is part of the novel the author-narrator is working on. A third section returns to that novel, the setting now some two decades later, the narrator describing his encounter with one of the characters from his childhood, while the fourth section is again more directly from the author, describing his day-to-day life in the present.
       The narrator of the novel the author is writing is clearly just another version of himself, revisiting different times in his life. The present-day sections are just an extension of that, in a sense -- ostensibly 'more real' but only seeming so because of their immediacy; the author-narrator claims about the novel he is writing: "it's fiction" -- implying the present day sections are not -- but they're all just different levels of the same novelistically-treated reality. So, yes, Ways of Going Home is very much about recollection and storytelling, of taking experience -- past and present -- and (re)shaping it. From the basics of the actual writing of the novel-within-the-novel -- "I try out changes. From first to third person, from third to first, even to second", for example -- to the form in which he finally allows the story to unfold, he repeatedly makes readers aware of the many choices that are made in (re)presenting recollection and dealing with past -- the different 'ways of going home'.
       Ways of Going Home is also about the connections we have with people. The narrator re-connects with a girl he knew in the 1980s, Claudia -- admitting as he looks back on their childhood friendship:

We talked a lot. Sometimes I think I'm writing this book just to remember those conversations.
       The author-narrator, meanwhile, is in the process of reconnecting with the woman he married. Having drifted apart, they got back together recently (though without yet even taking the step of moving back in together). As he explains to his sister: "it's all fragile, tentative" -- and much of the book has that feel, of a careful handling of the material, because it is so very fragile.
       The narrator's younger self is shown as a boy with little understanding of much of the world around him, even as he intrepidly explores it. The adult world, in particular of politics, remains something he cannot properly interpret. Yet even beyond that his world is one of childish misunderstanding. Claudia asks him to report on her father, who lives next door to his family. He dutifully tries his best, even as he cannot understand the situation, from the fact that the girl does not live with her father to the visitors that come to the house. His spying also repeatedly leads to other misunderstandings. Only decades later does Claudia clear up what the situation was.
       There are other levels of misunderstanding in the text, in part necessitated by the secrecy and obfuscation that came with living under the Pinochet regime. The young boy certainly remains in the dark about a great deal for a long time -- right down to the fact that:
As for Pinochet, to me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that, for the stuffy national channels that interrupted their programming during the best parts.
       At one point the narrator discusses a frustration he felt in being unable to share some common experiences at university, as he came: "from a family with no dead". Others have stories to tell, but his limited past -- missing the dead (and also, significantly books -- his family household was devoid of books) -- leaves him without this rich, deep material.
       The author-narrator suggests: "To read is to cover one's face. And to write is to show it", but in emphasizing the layers of fiction and the layers of misunderstanding surrounding recollection he also shows that such exposure remains both deeply personal and entirely subjective.
       An early scene has the narrator describe how as a child he inadvertently erased a short bit of a song on a music cassette -- and thgen tried to fix it by recording himself singing the lost passage. Ways of Going Home, he suggests, is a similar undertaking, a desperate attempt to voice-over lost, much richer reality.
       At one point the author-narrator explains that when people ask him what he does he no longer admits he's a teacher (because of the discussions it leads to); instead:
So now I say I'm a writer, and when they ask what kind of books I write, I say, to avoid a long and uncertain explanation, that I write action novels; it isn't exactly a lie, since in all novels, even mine, things happen.
       It's those kinds of passages one reads Zambra for -- and even if his novels aren't conventional action novels, even as they are deeply reflective works, they certainly aren't static. The unfolding layers of narratives, with so much shrouded in some sense of uncertainty, and the recollections contrasted with the present make for a rich and resonant novella.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 December 2012

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Ways of Going Home: Reviews: Other books by Alejandro Zambra under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Alejandro Zambra was born in 1975.

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© 2012-2022 the complete review

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