Stop if you’ve heard this one. There’s this family, and they live in South America. As a century rolls by, they have a variety of incidents that add up to a grander scheme, some which are barely explicable and seem like myths, and others which roil with political intrigue. At all times, the strength of family bonds comes through.
With all that lying at its core, readers could be forgiven for thinking Carolina De Robertis’ terrific debut novel, The Invisible Mountain, was just another Gabriel García Márquez-alike. But Mountain overcomes its similarities to seemingly every other novel written about South America through the vividness of De Robertis’ language and her subtle variations in character. Mountain is centered on three generations of women, all driven by passions that close around their souls like claws and don’t let go.
Mountain starts in 1900 in a remote Uruguayan village where an unloved baby disappears, then miraculously reappears. But rather than situating the novel in the world of magic realism, this event serves to provide the closure for an age when grander things were possible, when reality rarely intruded on dreams. From there, De Robertis samples nearly all the major literary styles of the 20th century, as she traverses the decades via forbidden romances, marital strife, domestic drama, and political intrigue. Her writing is strong and assured, particularly for a debut novel, and her powers of describing Uruguay, an oft-overlooked country in the Western hemisphere, bring that tiny country to vibrant life.
Not everything in the book works. Though its three stories (of a mother, her daughter, and her granddaughter) are sufficiently different in their overall arcs, the male characters tend to fall into the trap of being uncaring, unfeeling brutes more often than not, occasionally only because the plot requires it.
But in spite of that, De Robertis’ assured language keeps the novel from falling too far into any potholes. Every time it seems to wander off-course, De Robertis rights it with a wry observation or two—one particularly stunning late-book paragraph describes how the rise of some possibilities closed off others in the 20th century—and sends the book drifting back toward a supremely moving ending that unites all of De Robertis’ words, women, and ideas in a grand restatement of the ephemeral nature of everything.