Chris Abani is wonderful. Well and truly. A friend recently took a writing class with him and said so herself. Shortly thereafter I received his latest novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas.
Where do I begin? The story, according to the book jacket is that a set of conjoined twins are found and brought in as suspects in a murder case. . . a serial murder case. Brought in to question the twins is Dr. Sunil Singh. Singh himself works for a suspect institution and Singh must reconcile the many aspects of his life throughout this investigation.
While the story takes place in modern day Las Vegas, it really is a story of South Africa. Yeah, I wasn't expecting that either. But it was, and it is frankly is more interesting to me than Vegas (though that city gets its fair share of attention too and even that was made fascinating).
Singh was clearly involved with questionable activities in the apartheid state. We, as readers, aren't sure of Sunil. Is he a bad guy? Good guy? Do we hate him for it? And the freaks? Or monsters, as they are also called....what about them? Do we think the conjoined twins are innocent? Simply because they are so different and treated poorly, do we have compassion for them? Are we trained by our society to be appalled or do we find ourselves overly patronizing and think they must be innocent?
It is this study of the "other" that makes its way from the Vegas desert to streets of the "other" world of Soweto in South Africa to Vlakplaas - a death camp and center of the Afrikaaner police violence. This is the progression of Sunil's life. It is the path at the forefront of this novel.
Back to those conjoined twins. From the very beginning, the policeman, Salazar, treats them abominably. As the authority, Salazar is allowed to treat these two (their names are Fire and Water) terribly and take them in for questioning when there really is no due cause. Throughout the novel, Fire and Water's life as sideshow freaks becomes less the main story and more the side-story to Sunil. Sunil comes face to face with his past. And it's an ugly past. But would we have chosen differently if we were under the same circumstances?
Abani introduces us to many characters. All of whom are "other" in some way; a "colored" in Sunil, son of an immigrant in Salazar, a prostitute, a man disabled, a group of kids who are self-marked with tattoos and other body disfigurement, those subject to radioactivity because of the U.S. nuclear tests in the deserts, and of course, the conjoined twins themselves.
There is history, action, and a little bit of wild-west gun slinging. Prostitutes and carnivals, romance, and moral conundrums fill these pages. By making his characters so multi-faceted, he creates humans; in all their glory and their crap. I've just added Abani's novella, Song For Night to my library list. I suspect I'll find Abani's brilliant treatment of characters in those pages as well.
This novel might be marketed as "thriller" or "mystery," but it is sheer literary art. There is so much you could go into and you know Abani has made every detail mean something larger. Everything is open to interpretation and dissection and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Thank you to Penguin for providing this book for review. All opinions are my own.