Reviewed by Gillian Polack
Another slim volume of Filipino tales, Marianne Villanueva writes with one foot firmly in one world and another in a very different one. Some of her stories are set in the US, sad studies of transplantation that only sometimes works and some in the Philippines. Some are speculative fiction (more horror than fantasy) and some are narratives of ordinary lives. What they have in common is a sense of desolation. This is a volume about lives that do not and cannot work, about people who make bad decisions or whom life treats abominably. Quite possibly, these stories are about the reality of happy ever after.
It takes a great deal of skill to maintain a reader’s attention with so little happiness in view. Villanueva manages it, but I did find myself wondering what would happen if life were a little happier or people were a little kinder. I ought to illustrate my point with the sadness of a single soul, but I find I can’t. All I have is purple prose (and Villanueva is not guilty of purple prose – her language is lucid) because I found the stories running into each other and merging, a week after I’d read the volume. They were distinct at the time I read them, but the underlying themes and tone are too similar and so they become one reflection on unhappiness, a reflection with an occasional desperate edge.
Because the characters are not remarkable enough to remain clear, because the tone is consistent throughout, this volume repays gradual reading rather than reading in one sitting. Its great strength is how Villanueva weaves between different worlds not fantasy worlds, but worlds here, around the corner from our own. She does this through focussing on the people of these worlds and through great attention to the small intricacies of life. The book is worth reading, simply for this.
If I had to classify The Lost Language, it would be at the literary fiction end of the genre spectrum rather than at the fantasy or horror end. I’m not certain, however, that this collection of stories ought to be classified. The stories belong together (and indeed, merge in my memory) whether they’re snippets of everyday drama or straight out horror. Even the horror (and the fate of characters in the story where the first thing that happens is the discovery of a severed hand) fits into the study of human lives that The Lost Language becomes, when the stories merge.