Precious Moon by Siobhan Pratt (Book Review)

Siobhan Pratt’s Precious Moon  tells of Katie, a wandering English girl lost in the Argentine highlands, who steps away from a bus crashed high in the mountains into another world. Alex, an English doctor working at a local clinic, comes to her aid and condescends to shelter Katie in his simple cabin until another bus comes to take her away. Katie speaks Spanish, so the first obstacle tourists have to understanding the lives of others does not prevent her from briefly becoming a part of the remote mountain community where she is stranded.

Siobhan’s colorful imagery puts readers into the village of San Julián and other Argentine locations, assuring the reader of the author’s eye for evocative detail.

…”Katie returned to the market place and spent the rest of the day ambling from stall to stall…. There were pyramids of bright balls of yarn beside swishing looms, and baskets piled high with freshly harvested fruit and vegetables.  On one side of the market an old man poured his heart and soul into the complicated chords of his bandoneón while on the other side a youth plucked lazily at the strings of his mandolin…. One seller offered leather straps and stirrups, ropes and whips, while another displayed old dolls in mended frocks, toy cars and figurines of patron saints. Bottles of wine and olive oil, freshly baked biscuits, tasty empanadas and long reams of sausages were bargained for. Katie ran her hands along the red and blue threads of the ponchos, blankets, shawls and rugs old women in wide brimmed hats pointed out to her.”
…Their route took them directly through the towering gates of the Parque General San Martín, and they wound their way slowly along the leafy avenues and boulevards lined with palms and bananas. The towering Tipa trees arched overhead to form a cathedral like vault, dispersing mottled light like stained-glass windows onto the procession below.

Katie and Alex are withdrawn and distant people, troubled by the past, each wary of the other. Alex found that “…she could be so baffling. Katie was without doubt committed and caring, and she made no real demands, just went about laughing and smiling, yet she could be so distant, and at a whim want to be on her own, far away.”

As they come to trust and eventually love one another, they slowly reveal the anguish and regret that has usurped their lives. Siobhan allows these mishaps and the feelings that accompany them to come out tentatively, with the deliberation one would expect of damaged people reluctant to risk more pain, distrustful of strangers who would threaten their solitude or imperil their peace of mind. In time, they discover they each have sustained the same kind of loss.

Los Desaparecidos – if you do not know this Spanish word, you will learn about it in Precious Moon. In Siobhan’s story, desaparecidos are not just people made to disappear by the Argentine Junta of the 1980s; the word also is a metaphor that swathes memories at the heart of the terror and desperation of Katie and Alex. At the end of Chapter Three, we come upon the first suggestion of darkness ahead – with the mention of an Argentine prison.

“…The kind of place people are taken to for no reason with no trial and never return from.  A place that has nothing to do with the almost non-existent judicial system and is run entirely by the neuroticism and sick pride of the Junta.”

According to the Wikipedia article on Forced Disappearance, the reign of political terror in Argentina in the 1980s resulted in the disappearance of tens of thousands of people who have never been found. Many are memorialized at sites like The Vanished Gallery and articles such as Los Desaparecidos.  Tens of thousands more are reported to have disappeared from Chile, Columbia, El Salvador, and other countries of Central and South America during the decades of the 70s through the 90s. Political kidnapping, however, is not a monopoly of the Americas – the Wikipedia article lists countries around the world where political abductions are reported to have taken place. In Precious Moon, Siobhan Pratt gives the reader a chilling impression of how the unbridled violence of a despotic regime affects the personal lives of one Argentine family and the community in which they live.

Shortly, Katie learns what it means to be a British citizen deep inside Argentina when the British invade the Falkland Islands in 1982 and hundreds of Argentine soldiers and sailors are killed. The villagers of San Julián treat her and Alex as before, bringing them warm clothing when the weather turns, but now everything they do, especially travel, has a new consideration – what will be the attitude of governments. His embassy advises Alex to leave the country but he refuses, and Katie stays as well, complacent in her conviction that nothing much will happen and that she faces no imminent peril.

Chapter Nine bursts into action with Katie’s recounting the drama of the tragedy that has haunted her life for years and the relentless search that had driven her for so long. She leaves San Julián for a neighboring village, but events close in on her, forcing her to a decision. “…Katie knew what she had to do. She knew she had to go back and tell him the truth that nobody knew. The truth that haunted her dreams, plagued her days, dictated her actions. The horrible truth she hoped to escape from around every corner, or at least find a place where it did not exist. Where she could find a solace from the tragedy: a place of quiet.”

When Katie tells Alex about her childhood growing up in Kenya, we recall to the worlds of West with the Night and Out of Africa – savannah grasslands, Maasai nomads, puff adders.

…Acacia trees, long dry grass, rocks big and small, sand, and the odd fireball lily dotting the distant open grassland with specks of red. Birds, dung beetles, cicadas, probably baboons, monkeys, possibly leopard, definitely snakes. But no sign of people. …Off the path and around deeper thickets there were more animal spoor and neat narrow paths; small buck darted in and out of sight, a lonely fox slunk away in the distance, and as it got darker, a hyena cackled from far off. …Life in the Kenyan sixties was perhaps not unlike the Argentinean eighties, where around any corner, anyone or thing could be your enemy, anything or place could be filled with danger.  Living in these times, and in these places, there were no assurances.  You just lived, and you hoped.

The precious moon of the title begins in the tale of an old Maasai storyteller.

“…we, the Maasai, we regard the moon as la azizi. She is our precious moon.”
He paused. “Tamati.” It is finished.
Immediately the gathering began chatting all at once, congratulating the old man on his storytelling skills, admiring the moon, admonishing the sun, discussing the donkeys and enjoying the evening.
“Daddy,” Katie whispered. “I don’t know if I like that story, but I do think the moon is very pretty.”
“It’s a strange story,” he agreed, and followed her gaze upwards. 
“Look, it’s a precious moon tonight, isn’t it?”
“Just like you. You are my Precious Moon. My la azizi.” 

Through all that comes after, the sight of the moon and its association with her father sustains Katie’s spirit.

“You forget that I’m not really British. I speak fluent Spanish. I was born in Africa.”
Micaela sighed. “Sometimes,” she began, “and I say this with love, sometimes I feel you have no idea who you are.”
To her surprise, Katie started crying. 
“No, you’re wrong,” she managed to reply, choking past her tears.  “I have remembered exactly who I am. I am my daddy’s Precious Moon.”

At the end of Siobhan’s story, when Katie has changed so much, the meaning of the moon for her also has changed, and it now promises to be a light on a path to deeper understanding.

The moon was full and bright and beckoning. It dodged behind ethereal clouds and then re-emerged further along the night sky. Always moving, always waiting, witness and custodian of the world’s secrets. Only the brave would follow her, entreat her to reveal her hidden truths.
“It’s a Precious Moon,” he said.
…She did not answer straight away as she studied the disappearing path of the bright sphere that had guided her through the years and was now leading her once again, enticing her to follow. At last it wanted to share its secrets with her.

“A first novel is a thing of promise, full of hope for the future.” And when a reader has finished Precious Moon, he or she might ask wither now Siobhan Pratt? “You have us wondering, m’dere, what will you write next?” For surely she should continue telling us stories. Since Karen Blixen and Beryl Markham, we have not had much to read about colonials in Africa, but Siobhan Pratt has both the writing talent and personal experience to take up the mantle and carry on with her own tales of growing up and living in Africa. These tales already wriggle into her writing now; they need only be unleashed and set to roaming free across the savannahs of her next novel.

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