Friday, April 20, 2012

Doña Nicanora's Hat Shop

Author: Kirstan Hawkins

Publication Date: 2010

Category: Fiction

Who'll want to read it? Fans of Alexander McCall Smith, but if you aren't, don't let that put you off. This book captures the same simplicity of spirit, almost to the point of naivety. Instead of being insipid, it questions modern society's accepted motives.

Point of no return: I am a sucker for W B Yeats, and this book has part of one of his poems as the epigraph (my new word for the day!):
I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

(From: Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven)

Quite apart from that, however, the second sentence on the first page:
"Despite it's legendary beauty, the town is largely untroubled by visitors as the buses descending into the valley are in the habit of dropping off the road, making tourism a precarious business for the locals."
Picturing all those falling buses (and presumably other vehicles too) really tickled my fancy and piqued my interest.

Classic line: There are really too many classic lines to list here. Suffice it to say that Kirstan Hawkins writes beautifully, picturesquely, and (no doubt through her anthropology studies) manages to capture the complexity of human interactions simply, but emphatically. One of my favourite parts is this, on page 126:
" 'I want to sell hats,' she said. 'I want to sell grand elegant hats like the ladies in the city wear. I want to make the plaza a centre of beauty. I want people to flock here from all over the province to buy hats more beautiful than they ever imagined. You know they say there is a hat for every dream, Don Bosco. I want to fill our town with dreams.' "

What's it all about? Valle de la Virgen is a small town at the edge of a rather voracious swamp. It is home to a host of interesting characters, such as Doña Nicanora and her children, the barber Don Bosco, and more recently Dr Arturo Aguilar, a young doctor from the city, imported by the mayor in an effort to bring the town into the modern world. They have one 'tourist', who is only known as the Gringito (the little foreigner), and is understood only by Nicanora's youngest daughter.

Don Bosco is still in love with Doña Nicanora, who spurned him many years ago for someone younger and more exciting, and has regretted it ever since. Her dreams of owning a hat shop remain unfulfilled, but have been recently revived, with the proviso that she can get the perfect premises - Don Bosco's shop.

Arturo is not really sure that he wants to be a doctor, becoming one to avoid his father's wrath, and to obtain the admiration of a girl he grew up with, who has grown into an alluring and dangerous young lady. He finds himself largely redundant, as the people of Valle de la Virgen rely on home remedies and a local medicine man when they are ill.

I loved this book, mainly for the relationships and personal interactions depicted, but also for the simplicity of life that is threatened by the modern world. The depiction of tourists from other countries and what they really want (I think it was banana pancakes) made me laugh out loud, mainly because there is a large grain of truth in Kirstan Hawkins' observations.

Publisher: Hutchinson

Visit Newcastle Region Library's Catalogue and Website.

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