By Ekta R. Garg
November 4, 2021
What You Can See from Here by Mariana Leky
Release date: June 22, 2021
Genre: Literary fiction
Rated: Book mark it! / 4 stars
These days, it’s possible for anyone to review anything: books. Electronics. I’ve read some really nasty ones about kitchen products.
In the nasty reviews, the product was usually mentioned once or twice. The rest was clearly motivated by something else going on in the person’s life. Maybe it was cheaper to review something than go to therapy.
Readers and ardent fans often share their thoughts on the books they read, which is cool and also a little frightening by turns. Authors now have instant access to how much people loved, or didn’t love, their work. Seasoned authors can probably shrug it off. Younger authors (in terms of experience) may struggle a little more with the bombardment of opinions.
As a professional reviewer, it’s my job to stay objective, to evaluate a work for what it is within the genre it stands. Books are emotional experiences, yes. Reviewing—for people who use it as a professional outlet—should be an objective one.
I say all this because had I reviewed What You Can See from Here from a purely personal standpoint, I probably wouldn’t have given it four stars. The plot, what semblance of a plot the book has, meanders. We spend more time inside main character Luisa’s head listening to her musings on life and little things than we do moving toward a specific goal or endpoint.
Also, the book actually has an omniscient narrator. There’s a fair amount of head hopping—essentially, moving from one character’s thoughts or experiences to another person in the middle of a scene without any sort of break on the page or in the chapter. Most writing experts wag their fingers at this, one hand on a hip, frowning in consternation.
From a purely personal perspective, I may not have finished reading this book at all. It’s slow, almost plodding, and I kept re-reading paragraphs to remind myself who everyone was. In today’s Instamatic world, that kind of approach doesn’t cut it.
And yet…and yet.
In a professional capacity, I doff my hat to Mariana Leky. Her slow prose isn’t plodding; it’s measured. I re-read paragraphs to remind myself of relationships between characters, yes, but also because her sentences are so beautiful they deserve another pass. When I saw she set the book starting in the early 1980s, it made me nostalgic for my own childhood when it seemed like time stretched in front of us and people worked a little harder to build, maintain, and uphold relationships.
Do writing experts frown at head hopping? Absolutely. In the hands of a writer with skills not up to the task, head hopping is frustrating to read. Its intent is nearly impossible to decipher.
Here, however, Leky sets the stage right from the opening pages. She’s uses an omniscient narrator and head hops, yes, but she does so with such careful deliberation that we don’t even realize when she’s moved from one character to another. All we know is that we love them all and ache for them in turn.
It makes sense that we spend the most amount of time in Luisa’s head, but we’re also privy to the thoughts of so many others in the novel. We watch as they struggle, as the people around them strive to help, and as an entire village shows the best of small-town life. Even for those with the ugliest pasts, the villagers seem to say, they protect their own.
What is the book about, you might ask. At its core it’s about a girl named Luisa and her family: grandmother Selma, great-aunt Elsbeth, Selma’s dear friend we simply know as the optician, and Luisa’s best friend, Martin. Luisa has parents—Selma’s son and his wife—but it’s clear that the relationship Luisa and Selma have is what forms the backbone of her life.
As a child Luisa muses that Selma is so old, she must have invented the world. The fact that Selma and the optician teach Luisa and Martin everything important, like their multiplication tables and how to tie their shoes, stands testament to the fact that Luisa is right in a way. For her and Martin, at least, Selma did invent the world.
People in the small German village where the characters live put a lot of stock into Selma’s dreams. Every time she’s dreamed of an okapi in particular, someone has died with 24 hours. The book opens with one such dream. In the dream itself, nothing dramatic happens. No, author Mariana Leky saves all the drama for the next morning when Selma tells everyone.
The villagers start scurrying to evaluate their lives, to make amends, to break off relationships that have been dangling by a thread anyway. They take risks or go back to their safe spaces. They brace themselves for the worst. Selma’s dream means someone will die, but there’s no way of knowing who that will be.
When the death finally does happen, Luisa and the rest of the villagers are blindsided. It can’t be, they want to say, and yet it is. What about all their preparations? The letters they wrote? The relationships they broke?
In a standard book, this event would provide a major turning point in the story. I waited for the same myself. Yet Leky continues with Luisa’s astute observations about life and love. The characters who are left keep fighting their demons. The plot doesn’t so much move toward a target as it ambles toward it, and when it gets there we’re not really sure if this is the end or simply where Luisa decides to finish her account.
Per today’s books and standards, it’s a quiet story. Almost a non-story. For the requirements of its genre, it’s spot on. Literary fiction promises its readers a thoughtful, careful inquiry into matters of the mind and heart. In that regards, What You Can See from Here hits the nail on the head on every single page.