The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

Since his first collection of stories, Easy in the Islands, Bob Shacochis has been our man in the Caribbean. The fictions in that book, as well as many in his second collection, The Next New World, and his novel Swimming in the Volcano are set in the islands, both real and imagined. Shacochis also published a nonfiction book, The Immaculate Invasion, about the U.S. and U.N. intervention in Haiti in 1994. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul begins in Haiti in 1998 but travels far in time — back to World War II, forward to the war against Osama bin Laden, who makes a cameo appearance — and ranges widely through space: Croatia, Istanbul, Montana, Nairobi. Like Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is about intelligence services, but Greene’s comedy has mutated into absurdity and menace.

Shacochis’s demigod spymaster, Stjepan Kovacevic, dictates the novel’s varied locations. As an eight-year-old Croatian Catholic in 1944, he sees his father beheaded by a Bosnian Muslim. After moving to America and changing his name to Steven Chambers, he graduates from Yale Law and becomes a deep-cover CIA agent posted around the world. When living in Rome, Chambers has dinner with John  le Carré — hence it’s little surprise that The Woman Who Lost Her Soul seems much influenced by le Carré’s novels. A Russian-doll plot keeps popping open (once revealing a living doll inside a casket); characters attempt to impose a Manichaean vision on a Venn-diagram world; period details of streets, food, dress, and local patois are exact. Shacochis, though, is more committed than le Carré to historical causality and multiple protagonists, so after Book One, featuring American human rights lawyer Tom Harrington in 1998 Haiti, Book Two focuses on Chambers in 1945 Croatia, and Book Three concentrates on his daughter, Dottie, as a teenager in 1986 Istanbul. Books Four and Five return to 1998 Haiti with a new focal character, Special Forces captain Eville Burnette.

Dottie Chambers, also known as Jackie Scott and Renee Gardner, believes she has lost her soul and, in the novel’s early pages, loses her life in Haiti after marrying a drug smuggler. The novel is thus set up like a murder mystery, with Harrington, who was mesmerized by Dottie’s beauty and recklessness, investigating her death and with Shacochis back-storying what Machiavelli would have called her “virtù,” not to be confused with “virtue.” From an early age, Dottie is trained in tradecraft by her father, who also molests her. When she is seventeen and experiencing first love in Istanbul, he has her pretend to be a prostitute in a sting operation that results in Dottie’s rape by a Muslim wearing a Russian-made dildo. Why Chambers is a charming monster may be explained by his traumatic sufferings as a refugee in postwar Croatia and by what he understands — and enforces — as a tribal code of revenge.

The flashbacks in Books Two and Three demonstrate Shacochis’s impressive knowledge of Balkan ethnic politics and Istanbul street life, but these middle books also present characters as victims of uncontrollable forces, historical or personal. In the books set in Haiti, Shacochis and that failed state give his characters more freedom to respond to and participate in complicated plots. Harrington once uncovered graves and human rights abuses in Haiti, but there are too many possible hit men for him to solve the murder of Dottie. Burnette, a hard-bodied but soft-souled cowboy out of Montana, was with the military in Haiti, has “intel” experience, and gets closer to the Dottie mystery — which involves her father’s surveillance of a Pakistani colonel, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, who is smuggling Muslim bad guys into the U.S. Though rather tortuous, this plot does allow Shacochis to tie the novel’s sections together through Chambers’s hatred of Muslims.

Shacochis’s genre inducements — Poe’s death of a beautiful woman, international espionage, jihadists on the doorstep, voodoo exoticism — and the 700 pages of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul would seem to make it ideal beach reading, but the novel is really dune reading, best done up in some private fold of sand where there are no distractions from its dense expositions and fulsome descriptions. Like the lawyer Harrington, Shacochis is probably well intentioned in his “exposé” of dangerous interagency conflicts in the U.S. intelligence community and in his suggestion that personality warps policy; and he is certainly sympathetic to Haitians victimized by occupiers, their own governments, and their God or gods, but the novel’s attempt to connect all its countries, times, and characters feels overworked, particularly the foreshadowing of 9/11.

Near the end of Swimming in the Volcano, four U.S. agents, whom the American protagonist calls the “friends of golf,” enter the book to explain his political naiveté to him. In the new novel, Steven Chambers is one of the “friends of golf,” so The Woman Who Lost Her Soul can be read as an expansive, global sequel to the local politics of Shacochis’s invented island in that first novel. Though widely praised, Swimming in the Volcano was also faulted for its digressions and lack of a unifying narrative. I doubt anyone will accuse Shacochis of losing his soul, but in surrendering to the temptation of an all-enfolding plot he does resemble in some ways the deceptive and manipulative Steven Chambers.

Like the nod to le Carré that promises a well-coiled narrative, Shacochis’s title implies a profound religious portrait (unless the title is supposed to echo The Girl Who Played with Fire). But the many pages devoted to Dottie Chambers instead present a troubled, idealistic woman who may have misplaced or surrendered her soul temporarily but never gives up on its existence or the possibility that her actions in the service of others — like a nun with a gun — can relocate and claim it. Though off-putting, the misdirection of the title is less damaging than an authorial deception that is central to the plot, a bit of voodoo hocus-pocus that can be described only as a cheap trick, something like a magician making his beautiful assistant disappear and reappear.

Though obsessed, Chambers is usually a suave and subtle persuader. Shacochis tends to hector to communicate the seriousness of his subjects and endeavor. In the following passage and elsewhere, he plants prose inflated by hyperbole and metaphor in the mind of a character unlikely to think in the diction Shacochis gives him. Here the high school–educated Burnette, tangled in one of Chambers’s subplots, feels like

a decoy in their fucking games, the self-dramatizing schemes of overheated minds, unrestrained in power and influence and felonious inspiration. It all seemed a bit too diabolically fanciful and he felt once again shanghaied, made to join an absurd theater troupe renowned for bloodshed, performing exclusively for kings and their unsuspecting subjects, the cast and audience equally at risk of cutthroating or mock executions or ironically, because it was less titillating, almost a disappointment in its imaginative deficit, wholesale slaughter.

A longtime defender of long novels, I almost never find a book too big. Sometimes I think that every novel should be part of a trilogy or that Ulysses should also include June 17th. But The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is too long — and overdone. It’s overloaded with historical verisimilitude and character background, convoluted with what Burnette calls “the schemes of overheated minds,” and occasionally overwritten by an author who wants to rise above the genre elements he chose to work with. The novel winds its way to a redeeming ending, but you will need many days in the dunes to work your way to it.