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Claude Lalumiere's Fantastic Fiction

by Nina Marie Martínez

(Knopf, $24.95, 365 pages, hardcover; published in April 2004.)

There's a lot to love in Nina Marie Martínez's ¡Caramba!. Its heartwarmingly bizarre cover scancharacters, from the most despicable scoundrels to the most steadfast heroes, never fail to win the reader's empathy. The story, an entertainingly zany ghost story set for the most part in the border town of Lava Landing, is told with playful abandon and unabashed delight. The lush language, liberally peppered with Spanish, propels the narrative with vigour, almost making us forget that, well, there isn't much plot to hold the novel together.

The large cast includes main protagonists Consuelo and Natalie, lifelong best friends who love each other deeply, Tru-Dee the crossgender hairdresser, Javier the evangelical Christian mariachi, Lulabell the melancholy witch who sold her soul to the devil, Lucha the lascivious drug dealer, the ghost of Don Pancho (Consuelo's long-estranged father), and April May, Lava Landing's reigning Miss Magma for nine consecutive years.

Woven through ¡Caramba! are spiritual quests, complex love stories, sibling incest, the secret agenda of the mysterious volcano cult the Sons and Daughters of San Narciso, and much, much more.

Most winning is the author's unwavering compassion for her motley crew of outcast characters. Although Martínez makes us care about every one of their actions and thoughts, it's a shame that these details didn't all come together to tell a grand story. In ¡Caramba!, what we have is a string of memorably inventive scenes and moments -- and most certainly a relentlessly fun read -- but not a fully realized novel.

It should be noted that ¡Caramba! is an exceptionally pretty book; its colourful design, including its abundant illustrations, perfectly matches the book's charming exuberance.

Originally published in
The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, 5 June 2004.

Claude Lalumière's Fantastic Fiction is a series of
capsule reviews first published in the Saturday Books
section of The Montreal Gazette.

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