I didn’t really know what to expect from Genevieve Valentine’s third novel, after reading and enjoying her 2014 book, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. That one was a sensitive, somewhat nostalgic retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairytale of “The 12 Dancing Princesses”, set in New York in the Roaring 20s.
What I got in Persona was a taunt, gripping, amazing read that was a flawless synthesis of politics, glamour, suspense and intrigue. Oh – and it was unlike anything else I’ve ever read. I’m still reeling. And dang, I’d sure like to reel some more.
It’s the near future of our world, and politics has evolved into a game of stylized and cutthroat diplomacy. Gossip and policy go hand in hand, in a smooth synthesis of the superficial and the deeply entrenched. Think of “Entertainment Weekly” in the role of “Newsweek”, or if politics were curated by Facebook rather than a more, um, legitimate means. (Perhaps that not being so hard to imagine is part of what fuels the suspense.)
Suyana Supaki is the Face of the United Amazonian Rainforest Coalition (a country made up of the unification of Brazil and Peru), and operates within the realm of the International Assembly (think the United Nations, but with teeth…. fangs). She’s pretty enough, and charming on camera (which is 90% of diplomacy, she has been told), she appears to be the perfect mouthpiece for the UAFC and yet she’s sharp as a whip underneath her polished veneer, even though she’s still very young. The UAFC used to be a rising player at the IA until a bombing scandal by an eco-terrorist group had their so-called allies scuttling away like roaches under a bright light. Suyana lost her handler in the bombing, the only person that she had come close to trusting since she had been recruited to be a Face.
Her new handler, Magnus – she doesn’t trust him at all, but he’s very good at what he does. He’s even finagled her into a possible physical contract with Ethan, the US Face, which is quite a coup as the US is one of the Big Nine who hold virtually all the power in the IA. It’s possible that the US is pulling lots of unseen strings behind the scenes with this move, positioning itself for some major PR push, but if the public sees Suyana and Ethan as even a potential couple, it has to bode well for upcoming votes and further liaisons. Magnus and Suyana head to the hotel where the contract negotiations are to take place – a “first date”, as the rest of the world sees it.
Outside the hotel, a lone photographer lurks in the adjacent alleyway. He’s a free-lance “snap” in a world of networked competitors, and he’s been following Suyana Supaki on a hunch that the assignation she’s on carries more weight than it appears. His name is Daniel Park, and he has his own reasons for staying off the grid. But suddenly, what had been a scheduled and routine afternoon erupts in gunfire, and a wounded Suyana is lurching into the alley where Daniel has been steadily clicking away. Torn between hope that he’s gotten some lucrative photos of the actual assassination attempt (or is it just a publicity stunt?) and a humanistic need to help the wounded young woman who, due to the continuing gunfire, appears to still be in danger, he ditches the camera (but not before pocketing the memory card) and they run.
Welcome to the first 18 pages.
The writing in Persona is just superb. It is sparse and concise, conveying much within few words, which is exactly why this novel succeeds on so many levels. The world in which the book revolves is superficially bland and processed, yet every word spoken, every gesture, heck, every nuance has a meaning that speaks volumes in the pointedly unacknowledged yet highly scrutinized actions that happen behind the scenes. How Ms. Valentine is able to covey the depth and complexity of such a society without rambling on and muddying the prose is simply inspired.
She’s very stingy in explaining her characters, as well, which really helps to crystallize the focus of the story. We get to know exactly what we need to know, and not much more – and yet, it is this dearth of explanation that makes what we do see so very rich. The only characters we learn much about are Suyana and Daniel, and the depth in which we get to know them feels incredibly intimate. Yet their interactions with the other players in the book – and each other – bristle with intent and personality.
While Daniel is an intriguing character, and a lot of the action hinges on his reactions, it is Suyana who grounds the novel. She is such an amazing heroine. Young, idealistic yet realistic, entrenched in the theatrics of her position and yet completely aware that they are necessary theatrics, she is a young woman who grew up in difficult circumstances and has been meticulously groomed to play a role for a few years that is rife with political manipulation – of her, and by her. Yet she would fall flat if that were all she was. There is so much more to this character, other aspects of who she is and what she does and why she does it, that opens up the story to so much more intrigue, so much more connivance, so much more spirit and strength – and this, this is another way that Persona excels.
I know that we’re not even halfway through 2015, but I’ve already got Persona pegged as one of my favorite books of the year, and I can guarantee that I’ll be watching Genevieve Valentine to see what she comes up with next.