At 715 pages, with a confoundingly serpentine story that sprawls across five decades, four continents and three wars, including murders, rapes and betrayals in numbers that challenge our concept of mathematics, Bob Shacochis’ new novel does not lend itself to a precise answer to the question, “What’s that book about?”
That is not a criticism. With a narrative that gathers steam until it’s a compulsion, with characters who fascinate even when they do not resonate, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul cannot be put down even as it darts through almost impenetrable jungles of politics, theology and deviant sexuality. It sheds multiple literary skins: neo-noir, Conradian tragedy, even something approaching journalism. It eludes categorization. But, despite a couple of near misses, it never loses its way or its ability to drag you along with it.
In the end it’s a sort of post-modern horror story, a chronicle of all the evil that men did in the last half of the 20th century in the name of ideology and religion. At one point, in what passes as a coming-of-age scene, a teenage girl beset by calamities (too many, too complex and too soul-killing to enumerate) finds herself “frozen by the immensity of loss and immensity of the world’s malevolence and its reverberations in her blood.” And that’s what The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is about.
At first, The Woman reads like one of those novels (think The Stars At Noon or The Long Night Of White Chickens) of Americans drifting existentially through the violence and madness of some haywire Third World hellhole, nominally trying to solve a mystery that may not even be real in a blighted moonscape where nothing is knowable and nothing would matter if it was because all morality and political purpose has vanished.
The hellhole in this case is Haiti in the mid-1990s, where U.S. troops, trying to restore order after a decade of governmental collapses and coups, are beginning to dimly perceive that there was never any order to begin with. The mystery is the murder of a curiously unsympathetic American photojournalist named Jackie Scott, long on carnal allure and short on emotional core. An American diplomat’s casual dismissal — “bimbo, cokehead, gold digger” — is actually charitable compared to a self-analysis Jackie once offered in an unguarded moment: “I’ve lost my soul.”
But a pair of men bedazzled by her extravagant lies and bedeviled by her pathological sexual teasing can’t quite bring themselves to turn loose. One of them is the dutiful but troubled Green Beret Eville Burnette, the other the brooding human rights lawyer Tom Harrington.
They, too, may be losing their souls. Burnette’s patriotism has led him into a sucking swamp of secret operations of increasingly dubious intent, while the corruption and brutality of Haiti have robbed Harrington of his conviction that the dignity of the dead can be restored by documenting them.
Yet their investigation leads nowhere but to blind alleys and dead ends. Was she the victim of a newly acquired gangster husband? Or bandits? Or just the random violence thrown off by the chaos of Haiti like radiation from a nuclear pile? The interest in her death by the CIA and the FBI seem to momentarily invest it with significance, but ultimately they seem to be chasing their own spooky tails.