“History repeats the old conceits / the glib replies, the same defeats,” Elvis Costello once sang. It isn’t history on a large scale that’s regurgitating itself in Carmen Posadas’ newest novel, Child’s Play, but the message still stands; the sins of the past have a way of echoing down into the present, and only a fool thinks those echoes can be ignored. As themes go, it isn’t a bad way to frame a murder mystery, but Posadas’ ambitions go beyond creating a simple thriller. In Play, she attempts to layer meta-commentary and Jorge Luis Borges-like self-allusion into a more traditional plot, and the result is a muddled, frustratingly distant effort. It’s as confusing as wandering through a maze of broken mirrors, and about as emotionally rewarding.
Much like Posadas herself, Child’s Play protagonist Luisa is a children’s author turned mystery writer; in her 50s and fabulously successful, she splits her time between constructing puzzles for her sexy literary alter ego to solve, and caring for her 11-year-old daughter, Elba, who’s just getting ready to start school at Luisa’s former alma mater. On the first day of classes, Luisa runs into two old friends, Sofia and Miguel, while dropping Elba off. The three adults share a troubled past, centered on a death that may not have been an accident. While their parents exchange loaded glances, Elba strikes up a friendship with Sofia’s daughter, Avril. When Miguel’s oldest son catches Elba’s eye, the situation becomes complicated, and the past rises up to meet the present.
There are enough circular references here to do one of Lewis Carroll’s caucus races proud; Posadas loads the book with repetitive names, nested structures, and a heroine smart enough to notice them. The problem is that all that cleverness fails to connect in a meaningful way. A mirror’s biggest attraction is the images it reflects, but Play is so caught up in commenting on itself that its central images are faint and indistinct. Relationships that should anchor the narrative never truly materialize, and revelations of great weight come off more like news from a country no one can locate on a map. Only the ending works like it should; the chilling climax almost manages to tie together nearly 300 pages of loose ends.