Nikki reviews Year of the Monsoon by Caren Werlinger

This story follows Leisa, a social worker in Baltimore, who has found herself on shaky ground with her long-time partner Nan. The book opens with Leisa working the case of a young girl, Mariela, being found in her apartment with her mother’s corpse, where she had been for the last two weeks. Understandably, the girl is traumatized and will not speak or interact with anyone. The story then jumps around a lot, both in time and space, but basically follows Leisa as many conflicts seem to hit her and Nan from all sides (hence the year of the monsoon). You follow along their many trials and tribulations to see if they are able to withstand the storm of adversity that seems hellbent on tearing them apart.

This overarching theme does continue throughout the story, but the reader must navigate a lot of problems in the execution of the narrative. Although told in third-person, the perspective of who is speaking and when is highly variable from page-to-page, and often within the same paragraph. Some of these time/perspective jumps are understandable as it helps to put a situation or feeling into context. However, the vast majority of them happen with no transition so it is difficult to determine who is speaking at any given moment in time. I believe this occurs most times in order to explain a particular action or reaction of a character, although it is done in a way that is disjointed and difficult to follow. As an example, and early on so I’m not spoiling anything here, Leisa is speaking with the situationally-mute Mariela and transferring her mother’s ashes in the process. Leisa states (rather brutally) the cause of her mother’s death, then the dialogue shifts to her friend Maddie telling her at some point in the past to “always tell them the truth” before jumping right back into the scene. Although the intent must have been to demonstrate why the social worker would be so brutally honest with an extremely traumatized child, the result is an awkward transition and results in literary whiplash. This happened often in the story, and I never got used to it.

Additionally, there are so many characters and subplots/conflicts in this story that it is difficult to navigate. Now, I am a fan of complicated narratives with a lot of characters (After Mrs. Hamilton comes to mind as one I particularly enjoyed). However, at one point I think I counted 6-8 character names being introduced in a single paragraph. Several of the more prominent secondary characters (Jo Anne, Maddie and Lyn to be specific) seem to merely be there to introduce dialogue that should have occurred between the main characters, but never does. Actually, so much of the story is presented as an afterthought instead of within the narrative, that I felt I was never able to experience much of the plot. It was almost as though the author realized “I think I need to explain why this would happen” so some dialogue was thrown in to say “oh by the way, this happened back there” instead of going back and putting it in a more organic place. This happened regularly and never really improved.

I mentioned earlier about the many conflicts going on for both Leisa and Nan. However, every single one of the conflicts is presented superficially. I truly believe that if the conflicts had been limited to 3 or 4 (or even 5!) that the author could have made them each so much more interesting and effective for the reader. But as it is, the writing is too convoluted and wrought with problems to communicate the impact of each obstacle. Although I can’t really say that I enjoyed this book, I believe that with a lot of work it would be an intriguing story.