The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

By Bob Shacochis

Atlantic Monthly Press. 715 pp. $28

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Reviewed by A.D. Amorosi


For war correspondent turned occasional fiction writer Bob Shacochis, the frank, foreign intrigue of three continents sprawled across five decades is a walk in the park.

That's the battle-strewn and shadowy backdrop to his first novel in 20 years, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, an epic work whose dramatic, overarching stretch through slimy Special Forces, graceless guerrilla warfare, and calculating Cold War spies is akin to reading the dialogue notes to a conversation between John le Carré (at his Smiley-est) and Graham Greene.

It is crucial to note that part of what gives Shacochis' grand new tale of salacious secret agents and lusty warmongers its zest stems from his experience as a culinary columnist for GQ, writing that man-style magazine's "Dining In" section with the hairy passion of a guy who loves sinking his teeth into a perfectly rare rib eye just as much as he does the hard and hearty tale at the center of his new overheated novel.

As he did in his last novel, 1993's richly descriptive Swimming in the Volcano (a finalist for the National Book Award), Shacochis wastes no time entering into the murk of geopolitics or its taboos - this time, the voodoo culture and corrupted governments of occupied Haiti in the 1990s.

Tom Harrington, talkative humanitarian lawyer and creator of the Truth Commission, returns to the Haiti that haunted him (in so many ways) after finally achieving dull normalcy and calm in Florida and family life. He may be helping a private investigator with the murder case of one Renee Gardner, but in reality, Harrington is retracing his steps and hers as she traveled Haiti's claustrophobic emerald acres under the alias (just one of her aliases) of photojournalist Jackie Scott.

It is in this tightly overcrowded Werner Herzog-like environment that Harrington recalls his past with Scott, a damaged lass he once brought to a voodoo priest straight out of central casting to restore the soul she lost throughout years of hurt and familial horror.

Shacochis takes readers through the backstory of Jackie's vicious and abusive father, a spy-diplomat who as a child in Croatia, during its Nazi German occupation, watched his mother being tortured and his father being beheaded. From that point forward, we're presented not just with the ways in which Gardner/Scott continued to be damaged (by her father, as well as by the savage romantic Special Forces operative Eville Burnette), but with the ways the soul of the world at large continued to get beaten down through evil espionage and the greed of power brokers and warmongers.

Rather than keep his focus on the avarice of Anglo-Euro-Haitian puppet masters and shadow players, Shacochis introduces us to "The Base," a zealous lot of Arab extremists. With that, Shacochis makes irksomely certain that his vivid, imaginative romps with creepily cinematic Nazis, hand-wrenching Turks, insolent Moroccans, fat banking Americans, and spooky Haitians - a vintage Graham Greene-like cast that would make Greene's The Third Man seem like a teen comedy - is relevant for the here and now. If only Shacochis had thrown in a few Syrians, a shirtless Russian leader, some Wiki-leaking hackers, and a slow-talking secretary of state or two, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul could have been as contemporary and to-the-quick as the Drudge Report.

Shacochis not only makes his characters quick-talkers, but keeps the action brisk (essential for 700-plus pages). The cliches are sharp, the sex is disposable, and the entire arc of a world in psychological and spiritual distress is described in a manner befitting a food critic who loves nothing more than a stiff drink after a good meal.

A.D. Amorosi is a Philadelphia writer.