Michael Gruber, Tropic of Night (HarperTorch, 2003)

"Osa Meji — you're very Oya!" the babalawo tells me, after divining with the ikin. He is a priest in Ifa, religion of Orishas, which has gained popularity in recent years. What appeals to me and many others about the paths of Orisha is a strong tradition, combined with a very real, experiential spirituality. What draws me, I am not sure ... but it is like magic.

I was walking by the paperback display in Barnes & Noble, disappointed that a novel I came for was not in stock — a novel that takes place in Tibet, by an author I like very much. Tropic of Night caught my eye. It could have been the colors on the book — purple and orange, a scene of sunrise — or sunset — over Miami. It could have been something else, one of those little coincidences that makes you pause, just for a minute. I backtracked a few feet, picked up the book and read on the cover, "Jane Doe ..." blah blah "anthropologist ... shamanism ..." Hmm, it's starting to sound interesting.... "Cuban-American police detective ... ritualistic murders ... Miami." These are a few key words that clued me in to what the book might be about. I opened randomly, sure enough, there's Shango, fierce god of storms, and on another page further along in the book I see Oshun, and Eshu. I like stories that invoke the Orishas; they give another perspective on these powerful spirits. This book seemed to have a good number of references to them; I was intrigued. The "little coincidence" was that I had minutes earlier unexpectedly come across a used copy of a book on Ifa, marked down to a reduced price. I was carrying it in my hand, because at the reduced price, I couldn't resist.

I began Tropic of Night and remained enthralled for three days. My husband cooked dinner twice, and my daughter even walked the dogs when I usually would, because I feigned a strange condition that kept me rooted to the couch. The story begins with Jane Doe, a frightened woman who has changed her identity to escape a witch — her husband — and who has just killed a woman with Aikido. The husband she is running from is DeWitt (or Witt) Moore, a famous writer, and the woman she killed is the mother of a little girl named Luz, who Jane then takes in as her own. They live in Miami, in a small place, sleeping together on a hammock, and playing at being mother and child.

Jane has taken the name Dolores, borrowing the identity of a nun she had known in Africa, while she was there studying shamanism, learning sorcery, and taking a step into an unknown world she will never really step out of. She has changed her look too — her hair and clothes no longer reflect her wealthy upbringing on Long Island, she wears the ugliest clothes she can find at discount stores, and dyes her hair an unflattering color. But, these disguises will not hide her, because her spirit is strong, and it calls like a beacon across the waters, to her husband the witch.

Witt is likeable — well, until one gets to really know him. He is a black man who was raised by liberal white parents, and expresses his frustration with social issues through notable poetry and plays. Jane and Witt's relationship was romantic and passionate, though at times unsettling.

As an anthropologist who had studied remote shamans in Siberia, Jane was excited to go upriver in Africa to study another remote people, the Olo — a tribe that supposedly taught the Yoruba a thing or two about God and gods, Spirit and sorcery. Though her earlier experiences with the otherworld should have offered a warning, she did not foresee the ugly events that would take place, changing her life and the lives of others faraway. She and Witt split, and after painfully realizing he would not allow her to live a normal life on a solid plane of existence, she faked suicide and escaped to her present home of Miami, falling into her new role as mother — or "Muffa," as Luz calls her.

When a pregnant woman is murdered in Miami, the baby mutilated, Jane immediately recognizes an ancient ritual from the Olo people, and knows that the only person who could possibly have committed the crime was her own husband. She realizes he is in her city, and is likely picking up the scent of her spirit. He is on his way, and through the proper completion of this sixteen-day ritual, he is gaining power.

Unknown to Jane is Detective Jimmy Paz, but the reader meets him early in the book. This is his case, and as he investigates the crime, he comes face to face with stereotypes (namely, that because he is Cuban-American he should be familiar with Santeria, which he isn't), prejudice, and his own personal needs and desires. Eventually he meets up with Jane, suspecting her as the killer, but as more women are targeted, he becomes convinced of her innocence.

What stirs the soul most as the book is read, are Jane's thoughtful, feeling observations, and her journal entries from Africa, which describe the people and place and her entrance into African magic. These entries are artfully arranged in the book, a natural descent into memory for Jane, and a necessary history lesson for the reader. They also offer a crucial understanding of the magic that is central to the story. Gruber is convincing, and inspires research into his topics, in much the same way that Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum inspired a study of Biblical Hebrew and research of the Templars. We get to know Jane intimately, and there are times when Tropic of Night feels like much more than the thriller it is. It is at times quite beautifully written.

This book could make one believe, almost, in the existence of real sorcery, a sorcery that competes with quantum physics and theories of ten-dimensional reality for mind-twisting contemplation. Through the use of hallucinogenic powders and an ancient, presumably lost understanding of humanity's original, psychic capabilities, the Olo shamans — or their wayward apprentices — can make themselves invisible, appear in two places at once, influence the thoughts and perceptions of others, get away with very bloody murder, and even, cause chaos in the streets of Miami. It also touches — with no preaching or overt philosophizing — on the nature of deity, mankind, and the ever-present search for wisdom, and satisfies our lingering fascination with the question of coincidences by supplying numerous examples in the lives of Jane and Paz. It is a surprisingly good read, and I wouldn't mind meeting Detective Paz in future books, whether or not he pursued crimes related to the "Saints."

 

[Nellie Levine]

Note: The book contains a glossary of foreign terms that will be helpful to the reader. There is little information on Michael Gruber online, that I could find — I had hoped to learn more about the research he might have done in writing this book. His author page at HarperCollins offers a tiny amount of background.

And although I would like to see more novels featuring Jimmy Paz, Gruber has stated in an interview with Slow Trains that his next novel will feature a kid who "becomes a modern Joan of Arc in a nasty corner of the world." Still something to look forward to, if it's as good as Tropic of Night.