People often see travel as a way to escape their comfort zones. For others seeking to leave home, exploring unfamiliar territory becomes a source of consolation. In Vendela Vida’s latest novel, the main character, in search of reprieve, sets up an adventure complete with hilarity, danger — and discomfort, taking the reader on an unpredictable and worthwhile ride.
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is the fifth novel from Vida, who wrote Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name and The Lovers and is editor of literary magazine The Believer. She co-founded 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring center for youth, with her husband, writer Dave Eggers.
Vida is known for writing about women who follow unconventional paths. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty never reveals the narrator’s first name, reflecting the larger theme of a woman thirsting for a new start and identity.
Instead, she focuses on a solo trip to Morocco. The reader learns early on that the sojourn is not a typical vacation: “This is the second leg of your trip from Miami to Casablanca, and the distance traveled already has muted the horror of the last two months.”
Once seated on the plane, a travel guide quickly deflates her spirits. “You read: ‘The first thing to do upon arriving in Casablanca is to get out of Casablanca.’ Damn. You’ve already booked a hotel room there for three nights.”
The first chapters poke fun at the idiosyncrasies and conflicts travelers often encounter. The main character briefly fantasizes about making a love connection with the man in the seat next to her. He brusquely tells her he plans to sleep through the flight.
These moments of hope and disappointment add humor to the story. Vacation troubles turn serious when the main character’s backpack, holding her passport, money and other essentials, is stolen as soon as she checks into her hotel.
The narrator’s dealings with Casablanca police to report the theft will resonate for anyone who has dealt with corrupt or inept law enforcement abroad. Left without any way to pay for her hotel room, she happens upon an opportunity to earn some cash via a Hollywood production filming in her hotel.
A visit to the American embassy goes awry. People she meets, including those who start out as friends, end up turning on her, mirroring relationships she left behind.
One of Vida’s triumphs in this novel is her masterful use of second-person narration, which establishes pace and urgency while creating a sense of closeness between the reader and main character. The prose is tight and the end seems to arrive too soon, before the reader is ready to detach. That makes it all the more crucial to savor Vida’s elegant, crisp and pointed storytelling every page along the way.
Blanca Torres reviewed this book for the Seattle Times.