Shacochis, Bob (2013). The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 713 pp.
I’d characterize this as a spy thriller, in the camp of LeCarre, perhaps, although unlike LeCarre, it is a sprawling epic rather than a tight story.
In Florida, a shady, ex-CIA informant hires Tom, a lawyer who has worked for an NGO in Haiti, to accompany him back to the island to help him investigate a murder. This is in the late 1990’s after the Americans deposed dictator Chevalier and the country was in political, social, and economic chaos. We experience the squalor, violence and corruption, of Haiti, but the investigation is soon sidetracked by shady government “operatives” who recruit Tom to investigatr war crimes. Amidst all this, he meets a young woman, “Jackie,” a photographer of unclear provenance, who attaches herself to him. Everybody in this novel is shady or of unclear provenance.
Tom is inexplicably attracted to the girl. Sure, she is beautiful, but his lust for her goes beyond rationality. Conversely, she treats him badly, except when she’s flirting with him. She acts like a psychopath and he acts like a schoolboy. Their relationship is hot, steamy, tense, and uninteresting, since it is motivated only by animal urges, which you can see anytime on the nature channel.
Nevertheless, Jackie is interested in voodoo rituals and Tom takes her into the mountains to see one, where she asks the priest if it is possible for a person to lose their soul. Of course, he says. Then there is a shoot-em-up and some other stuff, and that section ends.
In the next section we are in WWII Croatia, where a young boy watches his father beheaded by Nazis and his mother tortured. The village is burned, but before the bad guys leave, the main evil one has a talk with the boy and tells his name, and leaves him alive. If that isn’t a case of Chekhov’s gun, I don’t know what is.
In the next section, we meet Dottie, a young woman living in Istanbul with her shady, government-operative father, who teaches her tradecraft and also sexually molests her, although that part is off-stage and only referenced. Dottie falls in love with an Arab boy, who turns out to be a revolutionary and is mysteriously drowned by Turkish police. She suspects her father had something to do with it.
In another section, Dottie is working with her father on a “case” in which she is supposed to play a prostitute to entrap an evil Italian fellow. She is supposed to seduce him into a hotel room, where her father will suddenly appear and kill him. What could go wrong? Well, it does go wrong. Dottie flees, rejects her father utterly, along with all the rest of humanity, and at this point we assume she has lost her soul. And we realize it has been a flashback, and that Dottie is Jackie, the cold-blooded woman we met earlier, so no wonder she had no soul. We never do learn why her father did not just sneak up on Mr. Evil in the street and shoot him in the head. The prostitute ruse was a writer’s device so Dottie could lose her soul along with her dignity, faith, and hope. At this point the story is over and it’s page 470. But Shacochis was apparently having fun and continued for another 300 pages, which I think was a mistake, because nothing else of consequence happens.
In the last section of the book, we see various government shenanigans in Haiti and elsewhere, as we discover the arrogant, golfing, intelligence leaders that love war and run ruthless operations around the globe to promote it. This part is heavy-handed editorializing, uninsightful, and not necessary. Where were the editors?
The first 470 pages are written with some wonderful, memorable sentences, lots of rich local color, strong sense of time and place and the historical moment, all of which make the reading quite worthwhile, despite the thin plot. If that were the entire book, the Pulitzer Prize would have been easily justified. The last section of the book is not as well-written, and seems even as if it could have been written by a different author, and it brings down the whole reading experience. So my recommendation is to read the first 34 chapters, then quit while you’re ahead, skipping “Book Four” entirely, and you’ll have a good time.