Dancing With the Tiger by Lili Wright: A review
I learned about this book when I saw it on one of those lists of "books you should read this summer." I found the premise, involving looting of Aztec artifacts from Mexico and the dangerous and obsessive competition among collectors of those artifacts, to be intriguing, and I added it to my reading queue. Well, I didn't get around to reading it in the summer, but it turns out it is just as interesting in the autumn.
The book was a bit difficult to get into at first because the writer uses the device of multiple points of view to tell the story, and, as the short chapters toggle back and forth between those various points of view of characters who are a mystery to the reader, the reader suffers mild whiplash in trying to keep up. But perhaps one-quarter of the way into it, the story started coming together. I'd gotten a handle on those disparate characters and could begin to follow each of them into their parts of the narrative.
The story briefly is this: Anna Ramsey is the daughter of a disgraced expert on Mexican antiquities, a collector of Mexican masks. His collection was set to be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York but then much of it was revealed to be fake, contemporary reproductions of ancient masks. When New Englander Anna learns of the possible discovery of Montezuma's death mask, she determines to go to Mexico to obtain it for her beloved but ineffectual and drunken father.
Incidentally, she also determines to take her mother's ashes - her mother had been killed in an accident in Mexico some twenty years before - to the country that she loved so much and to scatter them there.
The magnificent mask in question had been discovered by another American, a meth-head digger. The digger - or "looter" as his chapters in the book are titled - is engaged in a high-stakes game of keepaway as he tries to market his important find. A shady expat American collector is one of those trying to obtain the mask, but he is opposed by a ruthless narco lord collector with whom he has a running competition. Into this mix steps the somewhat unwary Anna.
Soon, Anna meets a handsome artist named Salvador who is passionate about keeping Mexican antiquities in Mexico where they can be seen in context. She also takes a job with the expat collector, thinking that he has the mask and hoping to steal it from him.
Throughout the novel, the mask changes hands several times, sometimes violently, and the body count rises. Although Americans are, in some sense, at the center of the story, the Mexican characters, at least for this reader, gave it its moral and emotional ballast. Salvador is the righteous protector of his country's heritage who forces Anna to question her beliefs and motives. The most beautiful prose in the book is contained in the gardener's odes to his lover, and the gardener's wife, the humble housekeeper of the expat collector and his wife, is arguably the heroine of the piece.
This was Wright's debut novel and, to her credit, she handled the theme of pirated antiquities and the morality (or sometimes lack thereof) underlying archaeology and managed to deliver a sprawling literary thriller with a lot of energy and occasional flashes of humor that helped to leaven the mood. It was a refreshing page-turner of a book that also gave the reader much to contemplate about how we handle archaeological finds and how museums acquire their treasures.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars