Pierced by the Sun

By Laura Esquivel

Amazon Crossing. 216 pp. $14.95. nolead ends

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Reviewed by Katherine Hill

nolead ends When we first meet the Mexican policewoman at the center of Laura Esquivel's new novel, Pierced by the Sun, she has just witnessed the murder of a local politician she reveres. It's an awful scene for Lupita, who not only fails to stop the unseen assailant, but also wets her pants in fear.

By almost every conventional measure, Lupita is an unlikely heroine. A rape victim and recovering alcoholic who has spent time in prison for the accidental death of her young son, she has known guilt and shame intimately. On top of everything else, she is 4-foot-9 and chubby.

Yet for Esquivel, Lupita is admirable because of her abuse, harboring in each of her weaknesses a hidden strength. "Lupita knew fear," Esquivel writes. "She had felt it thousands of times before. She could smell it, perceive it, and predict it in herself or in others. Like a stray dog, she could detect it from a distance."

Pierced by the Sun has all the trappings of a classic detective story, yet Esquivel doesn't do much to stoke the mystery. The information she feeds us - about political chicanery, the continental drug trade, and Aztec myth, among other subjects - is often interesting in its own right but rarely tangles the web. It's as though Esquivel is ideologically opposed to guile, offering only straightforward and clarifying details, even if she has to shift perspective to do it.

The same goes for Lupita's character. Each chapter title celebrates a new attribute: "Lupita Liked to Iron," "Lupita Liked to Be a Bitch," "Lupita Liked to Dance," and so on. While our heroine falls under suspicion from time to time - she is, after all, a reckless drunk - we never really doubt her fundamental goodness. Nor do we doubt the fundamental corruption of Mexican society, the supervillain Lupita must confront.

That's because the author is always there to spell it out. "She cried for all the corn that would never grow because farmers got paid more for their crops if they planted opium poppies," Esquivel writes. "She cried with rage over the approval of an energetic reform that opened the doors to foreign investors to take over Mexican oil."

When Lupita's journey takes her to a village off the grid, the message becomes even more explicit: "Nature, along with the generous gestures of the indigenous women, finally allowed Lupita to comprehend the idea of a superior power, a supreme energy that organized the movement of the stars, that regulated ecosystems and that - among many other things - synchronized the cycles of women with the cycles of the moon."

Perhaps it's no surprise that Esquivel, author of the recipe-laced romance Like Water for Chocolate, would offer an ecofeminist recipe for her nation's woes. It's an appealing vision in many ways. But Mexico deserves a political novel that is as complicated as its politics.

Communitarianism is the only philosophy to which Esquivel grants any value, and yet it's hard to believe in a community in which only one person possesses life force. Had Esquivel allowed her drug bosses, beauticians, and radical militants half as many dimensions as she lavishes on Lupita, she would not only have written a better novel but also have made a better case for her cause.

Katherine Hill, author of "The Violet Hour," teaches creative writing and literature at Adelphi University.