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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mala Vida

Marc Fernandez

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To purchase Mala Vida

Title: Mala Vida
Author: Marc Fernandez
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 222 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Mala Vida - US
Mala Vida - UK
Mala Vida - Canada
Mala Vida - Canada (French)
Mala Vida - France
Onde confidenziali - Italia
  • French title: Mala Vida
  • Translated by Molly Grogan

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Our Assessment:

B- : fast and action-packed but too simplistic

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Mala Vida is an ambitious thriller -- of sorts -- that stuffs more in than it can comfortably handle. With some early promise -- even as the scenes and pacing are more suited to film than fiction -- Fernandez both keeps packing it on and then resolves everything all too easily-neatly, while he allows his personalities to completely overshadow the subject-matter.
       The novel is set in contemporary Spain, but even here Fernandez feels obliged to set the stage for his story by changing a few fundamentals, opening the novel with an election that has put a right-wing party of vacuous crony conservatism -- think Viktor Orbán's Fidesz or Trump's Republicans -- in power. They're not dangerously militant -- not a full throwback to Francoist times -- and they can't completely purge the government and silence the opposition, but they do quickly exert widespread control, with, for example, the new minister of culture and communication immediately appointing: "his cronies to lead the major public media outlets in a frenzy of Berlusconism". Journalists and editors critical of the new ruling party were let go, but Diego Martin, host of the late-night program Radio Confidencial, was conveniently left as the token oppositional showpiece, so the government can claim they haven't completely silenced all critical voices.
       It is a rising of the old guard in new clothes, as Francoist roots and sympathies obviously color this 'Alliance for a Popular Majority' that has come to power -- obvious from the first, when Franco's long-outlawed coat of arms are again displayed on flags, before the election results are even final. Part and parcel of this is the Catholic Church -- and here too Fernandez has to add a new fictional layer to present-day conditions to spice things up (or rather make what's black and what's white here even more blatantly obvious), imagining 'the Crusaders for Christ', an: "extreme right-wing group of several thousand followers" that emerged from a schism with Opus Dei:

They are Catholic fanatics who believe that a new war of civilization is going to engulf Spain.
       The controversy at the heart of Mala Vida is a scandal from old Francoist times that seems to have continued even after Franco's death: babies stolen from their mothers and sold to "'good' Catholic families". Isabel, a French lawyer with Spanish roots who recently returned to Spain, has made the uncovering of this scandal her mission; her big announcement of the formation of a 'National Association of Stolen Babies' (NASB) sets off a media frenzy and intense national debate. The new ruling party might not want attention drawn to this, but even they can't completely put a lid on it.
       Diego Martin, with his radio platform, gets drawn into this -- he understands what a huge story this is -- as does a friend of his, the high-ranking judge David Ponce, who wants to open a case on this (and is of course soon pushed from his position by the powers that be, who don't want anyone nosing around -- much less holding anyone accountable). In a prominent supporting role is Ana Durán who, after ten years on the streets as the: "most sought-after transsexual working the Calle del Pez" and then as: "the top call girl at the biggest escort services" got out of the sex-business and opened ... a private detective agency. (One can understand the temptation to include colorful characters in a novel, but you have to work a whole lot harder than Fernandez is willing to do here to use a character like this without readers' eyes rolling .....) Ana is a longtime friend and informer of Diego's, and Isabela also hired her to do some work for her.
       They work together, and separately, basically to bring the scandal to the public at large -- which doesn't prove particularly difficult. There are some hurdles, of sorts, along the way -- threats and some physical intimidation; a mole in NASB; a van keeping tabs on Isabela -- but on the whole the exposé all unfolds rather simply and publicly. There are their personal angles, too: workaholic Diego lost his wife to a revenge-killing for his work a decade erlier -- and now finds himself kind of drawn to Isabel. Isabel's grandmother, living back in Paris, is central to the child-stealing story, and her own testimony, recorded by Diego, helps bring it out in the open -- but she's old and frail and apparently has a weak heart .....
       All this is more than enough to make for a busy story, but it's not the half of it. Indeed, Mala Vida begins on election night, when one of those who would have been named to the cabinet is killed in cold blood. The action then moves ahead six months -- but the killings continue, five people assassinated, one by one. The crimes don't appear connected at first, but eventually it becomes clear to Diego and Ana that all the victims had connections to the old Franco regime -- and, it turns out, to the baby-stealing scheme.
       This asssasination-rampage is a problematic plot twist, to say the least. For a while Fernandez makes something of a mystery of it, presenting the killer only anonymously at work, but soon he drops the pretense: it's clear who's doing the killing, and the remainder of the murders are described with that information no longer hidden. So there's a murderer on the loose -- but it's not really a murder mystery. And though the killer's identity eventually is also known by several of the interested parties ... no one really seems to care. Oh, sure, the situation is 'fixed' in the end, and it's not an entirely happy ending for those involved -- sure, the killings were in some perverse way justifiable (the victims had done bad things, or were the kids of folks who had done bad things and were carrying on the family tradition) and even Fernandez can't let the serial-killer off scot-free -- but it's a far cry from justice being served.
       So that's an awful lot to deal with in a fairly short book. Early on, Mala Vida has a cinematic feel -- you can imagine the scenes in a movie, as the novel almost seems scripted for that -- but eventually, with the action flung all over, it's too much even to capture that way. Frustratingly, too, everything moves along so easily; what limited hardships there are are easily dealt with. Ridiculously, too, there's often little sense of urgency, as several characters take time off (really -- like actual vacations) along the way.
       There's also the writing. The quick action-scenes and some of the exchanges aren't even that bad, but Fernandez can't sustain things at length. And there are sentences such as: "Diego can wield a microphone like others would a sword. A razor-sharp one".
       The murder-spree sideline really distracts from the rest of the story Fernandez wants to tell. It's actually the most exciting part, as he describes the different kills in fairly evocative detail, but he just can't fit it together with the rest of the story -- and the murderer's identity complicates matters further. It's ridiculous to imagine this person would have this hobby, considering everything else they're already busy and involved with -- not without a lot more exposition.
       So Mala Vida is a pretty odd little novel, overly-ambitious yet ultimately underwhelming in all its parts. It reads easily and quickly enough, but it's pretty thin -- and significant parts are too far-fetched. It's energetic and enthusiastic enough not to be an outright dud, but it's too basic to really make much of impression; it's a book that's at YA-thriller level, not adult fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 January 2019

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Mala Vida: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Marc Fernandez is a French author and journalist.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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