Grand Central Publishing, November 3, 2015.
In his final novel, Hijuelos portrays a very different version of Mark Twain than in another book I recently read, Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End. In Cullen’s novel, he is shown as a rather foolish old man. Here, Twain has strength, power and brilliance. Most of all, he has influence over his friend of thirty-seven years, Sir Henry Morton Stanley.
Hijuelos was fascinated by the friendship between Twain and Stanley, and he spent many years working on this novel – in fact, he was still adding finishing touches at the time of his death in 2013. He started with detailed historical records and developed the story into this fictional account. The novel has a very non-fictional feel to it, lacking in depth of emotion. With a mixture of letters, memoirs and third-person storytelling, it makes the reader feel like we are actually searching through the historical documents ourselves.
Paradise focuses on life in Victorian literary circles at the time, with appearances by other writers such as Henry James. From the American West, Stanley and Twain travel to Cuba, in search of Stanley’s adoptive father. Although they seem like an unlikely pair of friends, it must have worked because their relationship spanned decades. HIjuelos honours both men with his reflection on their life’s work – so much has been written about Twain, but I knew almost nothing about Stanley. It was interesting to see Twain through Stanley’s somewhat naïve eyes.
The documentary style of the novel is often bogged down by details, with big chunks of historical information dropped into the story instead of slowly developing the plot. The atmosphere is very 19th century, and Stanley’s first person documentation of American life is Twain-like in style. This is my first time reading anything by Oscar Hijuelos, and it may not have been exactly what he intended, since it was published posthumously – but from what I understand, it is very different from his other work. I did find it a bit dry and tedious at times, and because of that I would have had no problem believing that it was a completely non-fiction account. Paradise is a sprawling, life-long story in honour of two talented men, but it was drawn out too long for me.
I received this book for free from Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.