When truth runs rampant

The family of a cellophanemaker is turned upside down when all things become transparent.

By

Cellophane is the kind of substance that Arthur Weasley, bureaucrat in the Office of Muggle Affairs, goes gaga over: a utilitarian invention that people take completely for granted. In its leftover-wrapping incarnation, it's hard to think of a less magical kitchen staple – maybe paper towels or an old sponge.

But this most common of objects is at the heart of all sorts of mystical mayhem in Cellophane, the debut novel of Marie Arana, author of the memoir "American Chica" and editor of The Washington Post Book World. (Mr. Weasley would probably not be surprised by the magic, but all the novel's nocturnal goings-on would no doubt shock the "young adult" character.)

Peruvian inventor Victor Panaigua Sobrevilla is one of the fortunate few who got to realize his lifelong dream: to build a paper factory deep in the rain forest. He, his wife, three grown children, and five grandchildren are all comfortably ensconced at Floralinda, where his son and son-in-law help him turn hemp into brown paper.

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But now Don Victor, known by the local Indians as the "shapechanger," has developed a new process where he can create cellophane in the middle of the jungle. The same day that he perfected his creation, the family dog and the housekeeper's grandson both die under mysterious circumstances. Then the members of the Sobrevilla household find themselves compelled to reveal secrets that have allowed the family to continue running smoothly.

"Truth moved through the Sobrevilla house like a rude guest, striding into rooms where it wasn't wanted, interrupting the flow of conversation ... upping the amperage of every exchange."

Revelations include Don Victor's many infidelities, a Chinese ancestor who's verboten in racist high society, and the fact that none of the Sobrevilla children is happily married. The inability to lie spreads rapidly throughout the enclave, infecting everyone from the parish priest to the factory workers.

Then everyone starts falling in love (not usually with their spouses), in what Don Victor's curandero, or shaman, refers to as a plague of hearts. As affairs get messier, outsiders begin showing up at Floralinda, ranging in harmlessness from an American cartographer to the Army.

Oh, and let's not forget the tribe of headshrinkers, out searching for the chief's wayward daughter.

The plot invites comparisons to Paul Theroux's "Mosquito Coast," in which an inventor transplants his family to the jungle to build an ice factory; elements such as the isolated village run by a patriarch and the magic realism are reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." (True confession time: The genre's not my favorite. Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits" is the only one I've read that didn't leave me somewhat cold.)

But Arana is an accomplished writer who imbues her story with enough humor to help out her more prosaic readers. And she has created some wonderful characters, particularly Tía Esther, the family storyteller who defiantly embraces the Chinese heritage that makes her family outcasts in Peruvian society.

Arana pounds her central metaphor home a little hard – there are a few too many speeches about truth and the transparency of cellophane ("a tissue as beguiling as glass").

But as any child who has used Cling Wrap to make funny faces knows, cellophane is not only see-through, it distorts objects. And the Sobrevilla family comes to learn that saying whatever pops into your head isn't the same as truth.

As the curandero tells Don Victor, "All those truths you think you are telling one another are only secrets about lust."

Like Doña Mariana, a reader comes to wish that Don Victor didn't feel the need to unburden himself about every liaison. There's copious amounts of sex in the book – most of it graphic, some unintentionally funny. (One woman creates a dress out of cellophane to meet her lover. All I could think of was Kathy Bates in her Glad Wrap getup in "Fried Green Tomatoes.")

Victor's fascination with paper is actually more interesting than his desire for his grandchildren's teacher. As a boy, he'd filled the drawers of father's desk with a paper museum: "Snippets of blue onionskin from letters written by his mother's relatives.... A striped candy wrapper from the old coolie at the corner store. A page of cardboard on which he had copied out a valse from his mother's stack of sheet music. A nest of shredded rice paper that once cradled his father's sherry glass. A yellowed map of the Inca Empire."

When his siblings ask why Victor keeps collecting paper, Tia Esther explains, "You love it because it's portable life." And that's as good a working definition for the attraction of books as I've ever heard.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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