Roberta Lowing’s debut novel, Notorious, tells the story of a diary that is said to be written by the poet Rimbaud and that obsesses generations of a family who use its maps of desert oases to smuggle goods and slaves. The narrative sprawls across centuries and continents, drifting between the perspectives of several characters, but it always returns to the diary, which takes on an almost mythical role in the history of the family.
The imagery of desert and oasis permeates the novel, even when the setting moves through Poland or Sicily or Borneo, and the quality of the writing, when at its best, could be described in the language of the desert also, as creating a sense of mirage, where things are probably not what they seem to be but nevertheless demand that we believe in them. The book’s strength comes through its capacity to place the reader in this sense of mirage, a unique effect that I think is a real literary accomplishment.
The narrative, however, is a straggling thing that drifts too far from its central themes and relies too much on coincidence to feel compelling. Though the various settings and characters are unified to a degree by the sense of mirage that runs through them all, the book seems untethered and unfocussed. There are are whole sections that I felt should be eliminated, and I found myself wishing that it had confined itself to the desert setting alone.
The novel is also overwritten at times, seeking for a poetic register that it misses as often as it finds, repeatedly breaking the book’s carefully constructed sense of mood. In some instances these passages fall into the ridiculous, like when a diseased squirrel foams at the mouth and the “yellow droplets” are described as eating “through the snow in steaming black holes,” a passage that is not only overwritten but also bizarre and patently impossible as well.
The sum of these successes and failures is a decidedly uneven novel, with much that is worth reading set beside much that makes reading a frustration and a chore. It is a book that might have been very good had Lowing edited it more sternly, but is instead only a mediocre book, even if it manages at times to touch on something greater.