The Secret History of Las Vegas: A Novel. Chris Abani. Viking Penguin Group (USA). January 2014. 336 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780143124955.
Fire and Water, two conjoined twins, lose their mother at a very young age. Having absorbed the radiation from the nuclear experiments conducted in Nevada, she is dying of cancer and chooses her own exit. One of the twins speaks normally in response to conversation with others but the other refuses to look at others and repeats factual statements about random subjects, sometimes at a normal pace, sometimes rapidly in a way that seems to the reader to be associated with extreme stress being experienced from other person’s questions or comments. Fire and Water are now being, in a sense, abused by two doctors who think they would make excellent subjects for drug experimentation. Subtlety and very real, direct statements evoke anger and poignant feelings in the reader as this part of the surrealistic plot unfolds!
Salazar, a detective, and Sunil, a research physician, unite with a common goal. Someone has been dumping bodies in the outskirts of Las Vegas. Salazar is determined to prove it is the twins who are guilty of murder, but Sunil gradually comes to some very powerful realizations about everyone involved in this criminal investigation, including Salazar and Sunil’s boss. What makes this a fascinating journey is that for Sunil, in some unexplainable way, it brings back horrific memories of his family and the hell of apartheid practices in Africa – whether that be in Soweto, Johannesburg, or a little known place notorious for its death camps!
Mixed in between the investigation and memories are exquisite stories, folk tales, scenic descriptions and more delights that turn this into a very literary story about how memories and histories shape us. Even the ghost towns left behind after the nuclear explosions are explored with grace and grit!
When we refuse to face both the lovely and the horrific, we become like the character Eskia, who is hunting Sunil with a psychopathic purpose. When we face them, as we see in this novel, there is truly a chance for forgiveness and change, redemption, salvation, call it what you will!
Years ago, this reviewer remembers Bishop Desmond Tutu beginning a campaign to get the perpetrators of severe violence meet with their victims and what a healing process that turned out for the majority of those who responded or at least tried to respond. This novel by Chris Abani reminded me of that period of African history but unlike that process, the reader here is invited to join the journey, perhaps vicariously if that is possible, and is left with questions and ponderings that bring some understanding and some soul-searching about the past and present, our history!
Chris Abani is a literate, sensitive author who brooks no fools with platitudes or mundane commentary. Even tough-minded Salazar in a unique fashion cannot help but be changed because of this exploration of a secret history in Las Vegas and that of Water, Fire, Sunil, Asia (a loving prostitute, and Sheila. All are richer for their large or small part in the challenges wrought by their interaction.
Superb historical and contemporary fiction! Highly recommended!