Personal, Reviews

What Changed You? The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Sometimes there is a moment or event, beyond your control, that changes your life. I specify beyond your control because there are several events that will change your life that you can choose – marriage, family, career – but there are many you can’t – abandonment, violence, death. This post focuses on the latter*.

So what changed you? I can, without a doubt, say that the event that shaped my life was my adoption as an older child**. It changed how I define the meaning of family. It changed my living conditions, things like access to health care, food, and school. It changed the way I think and feel. For a long time, it affected my ability to trust people and fostered my need for independence. It continues to challenge my sense of self-worth. One decision, in which I did not get a say, forever changed my life.

Sound of Things Falling

This is a focus of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s intense, thought-provoking new novel, ‘The Sound of Things Falling’: the idea that one decision can change the course of your life. That one decision by one person can have a ripple effect on the bystanders. A relationship can begin with something as simple as a brief conversation. That conversation, that decision to speak to someone, can change your life in ways you could never even imagine.

Now that many years have passed, now that I remember with the benefit of an understanding I didn’t have then, I think of that conversation and it seems implausible that its importance didn’t hit me in the face. (And I tell myself at the same time we’re terrible judges of the present moment, maybe because the present doesn’t actually exist: all is memory, this sentence that I just wrote is already a memory, this word is a memory that you, reader, just read.)

And Antonio Yammara never imagined that his casual friendship with Ricardo Laverde would get him shot. He didn’t imagine that he would be walking with his friend and that the two of them would be ruthlessly gunned down. Laverde dies, Yammara doesn’t. Initially, he might as well have. For three years, he continually relives his trauma. He continually lives in fear. In order to move on, he searches for the reason behind the attack on Laverde. His quest takes him through the turmoil of Columbia’s, and particularly Bogota’s, recent history (1960’s-1990’s) and the ramifications one person’s downfall can have on everyone who surrounds him. Although the novel is never plot-driven, it is a mystery unfolded by and in the narrator’s painful inner world.

‘The Sound of Things Falling’ is a beautiful, melancholy novel. It also serves as a contemporary history of Columbia. By no means do I think the novel is an actual history, but it examines the psyche of those who lived through the country’s turmoil, how the presence of the past can haunt you, and how the decisions of others will change your life.

Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps even depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has. When it arrives we receive it without too much surprise, for no one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions.

Columbia serves as a brutal (yet beautiful) geographic backdrop to the novel. Juan Gabriel Vásquez is a very gifted writer and the translation seems flawless (as done by Anne McLean). The book is not without issues. At times it is a bit heavy on the metaphors and it is perhaps too melancholy, but neither is notable enough to discourage its reading. Overall, ‘The Sound of Things Falling***’ is an important, compelling novel. 4.5/5, I’d highly recommend it for fans of literary fiction.

Ajiaco Bogotano

Food is not the focus of this novel, there is very little mention of it. Since it is almost autumn and I’m in the mood for soup, I thought I’d recommend a Colombian recipe – Ajiaco Bogotano (from Hungry Sofia).

*Another post that’s a bit on the serious, personal side – so apologies and thanks. It is just that type of book – a little dark, very melancholy, and incredibly thought-provoking.
**It’s worth noting that despite everything, I have a decent relationship with my mother (though I never did with my father, who died when I was 19). We’re not the type to talk on the phone every day by any means, but we get along fine.
***I received this book in exchange for my honest review.

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  • http://bookreviewsbycharles.wordpress.com cellenbogen

    I can’t wait to read it.

    • http://www.fourthstreetreview.com Rory

      It really is excellent. I hope you enjoy it.

  • http://readinginbeddotcom.wordpress.com lauratfrey

    Lovely post.

    I like it when bloggers get a little personal. I’ve read a couple books lately that remind me of my “changed me forever” moment and I’m trying to figure out how the hell to review the books without talking about it – because it’s not something I talk about. Or, maybe this is how I finally will talk about it. Still not sure.

    • http://www.fourthstreetreview.com Rory

      Thank you. It’s a fine line. I don’t want to alienate anybody (despite it being my blog, I still want everyone to be happy and come back again another day), but I don’t want to be disingenuous. I liked this particular book because it gave voice, much more eloquently, to thoughts and feelings I live with every day.

      As for talking about it the changed me forever moment, I don’t mind talking about mine within reason. There are details and experiences within that moment that will never see the light of day (or the public internet). I like when people share what made a book special, that’s why I do it. My advice, not that you asked, talk about it if you’re ready, if you’re not, you can still do it another day.

      • http://readinginbeddotcom.wordpress.com lauratfrey

        Isn’t that the best think about books? That they describe things about your life and yourself in such beautiful and devastating ways? :) Thanks for the advice, always appreciated!

  • http://christinarosendahl.wordpress.com christinasr

    I heard an interview with the author on the New York Times Book Review podcast and immediately added it. I like books that touches our personal core and reminds us about who we are and why we are that way – and I love reading posts that talk about this experience.

    • http://www.fourthstreetreview.com Rory

      It’s really very good. And I like the “reminds us about who we are and why we are that way” thought, because that it exactly why I liked the book. Books are such a personal experience, it only makes sense to talk about the way you relate to it. Maybe not in a national newspaper, but on a blog…yes, I’m going to go there.

      • http://christinarosendahl.wordpress.com christinasr

        I don’t think you can ever avoid the subjective angle – not should you want to. Not even in a national newspaper. It’s what gives each critique, each reader, a unique voice. If you can back it up with knowledge, fine. If you are able to see that something is a fine piece if literature, even if it’s not for you, even better. But the individual reader’s thoughts on reading and books, is why I read blogs. And this was a great example.
        The book also sounds a bit like Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao – have you read that?

  • http://sarahsaysread.com Sarah Says Read

    Personal touches on a post are always welcome. This sounds like a really, really good book. I love the idea that any little thing could have massive unforeseen consequences (and hence, another reason why I’m a big fan of the multiverse theories that claim a new universe is created everytime a decision is made, so there are an infinite number of Sarahs leading similar and drastically different lives because of random decisions). I think Life After Life also tackled this idea but in a different way – I haven’t read it yet, but I want to.

    Also, that soup looks REALLY good.

    • http://www.fourthstreetreview.com Rory

      It seems to be divided among book bloggers, some like personal stuff on a blog, some want just the books. But I think I’d feel differently about the book if I’d had different personal experiences, so I like to share why a book resonates with me as much as what the book does well (i.e. this particular book has beautiful language and structure).

      I haven’t read Life After Life yet, oddly enough it is not one that appealed to me. Decisions can be hard. I’m (possibly) facing a really big, life changing decision and I’m scared half to death. Because if I decide to go ahead with it, it’ll completely change my life. If I don’t, I’ll be stuck always wondering. I’m not intentionally trying to be vague (it’s a job interview 1950 miles away). I just need a crystal ball, is that too much to ask?

  • http://btweenthecovers.com/ Heather

    I will definitely be reading this one, and no apologies are necessary for adding personal stories to your posts. :)

    • http://www.fourthstreetreview.com Rory

      It’s a great book, a bit depressing, but great. And thanks, I do worry about scaring too many people off.

  • http://twitter.com/missbonnie13 Bonnie (@missbonnie13)

    This one sounds really good. Don’t say sorry for adding personal stuff! I think the personal touches are what separates us from the other bloggers. :)

    • http://www.fourthstreetreview.com Rory

      My apology was for two things: the first was the personal information overload and the second was the heavy subject matter. Though I suppose most people aren’t stopping by for unicorns and rainbows and my sunny disposition…

      Soon people will be able to write my biography if they read all my blog posts. Or, at the very least, a guide to pleasing me. 😉

  • http://kmbookmarks.wordpress.com Karen

    Great post. A good book should challenge you – it should prompt you to make connections to your own life and world. Thank you for divulging what changed you. I think it makes the book and review all the more valuable. The event that changed me forever? Feeling my father’s last heartbeat once his body succumbed to a long, hard fought battle with cancer. I cannot wait to read this book.

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