BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the sleepy town of Trujillo, a psychologist attempts to help a patient remember the mysterious circumstances surrounding his being lost at sea.
PROS: Skillfully delivered characterizations; marvelously orchestrated plot; wonderful, insightful (and haunting) prose; supernatural elements not overplayed.
CONS: Took a little too long to show its speculative aspects.
BOTTOM LINE: A beautifully written novel of transformation.
Sitting placidly on the Mosquito Coast is the Honduran town of Trujillo, the setting for Lucius Shepard’s 2005 excellent and understated supernatural novel of the same name. In it, a semi-retired psychologist (Dr. Arturo Ochoa) takes on a troubled patient (William Stearns) who was found alone and adrift in the Caribbean. Stearns has little memory of the 18 days before he was found and accused of murdering the boat’s two owners. Stearns’ rich American father, having paid off the police, hires Ochoa to help his son regain his memories to find out what happened.
This doctor/patient setup of Trujillo acts as a fertile framework for what is largely a character study of two men, though there’s also a bit of mystery as the reader tries to figure out if Stearns is indeed a murderer. Together, they make Trujillo read like a psychological thriller. To be sure, there are integral supernatural underpinnings to the story — most notably related to Stearns’ faint recollection of a mysterious stone figure emerging from a whirlpool — but even so, the book feels like a mainstream case study in psychological manipulation, depravity and personality clashes.
It’s therefore interesting to contrast Ochoa and Stearns. The doctor is an overweight, fifty-something semi-retired psychologist who makes his money living off the proceeds of a book written years ago. He has half-hearted aspirations of running for Mayor — a position of title more than anything else – but he’s got his hands full managing his rebellious teenage daughter and wrestling with the memory of a bad marriage that was punctuated with his wife’s disappearance, presumably run off with another man. Stearns, meanwhile, is a young, good looking ladies’ man with money to burn. He is hated by most men yet adored by all the women. He comes from a rich, stateside family and exudes boldness, confidence and oftentimes contempt for those around him. The relationship between Arturo and Stearns is adversarial; clearly there’s something wrong with Stearns, but his demeanor toward the doctor is nonetheless condescending, as if he doesn’t want to be helped.
The beauty of Trujillo is in how Shepard uses this relationship as the pivot on which to portray a carefully orchestrated personality shift between these two characters. It’s quite subtle at first (and follows a few even more subtle foreshadowing clues) but becomes more prominent as its cause becomes evident. This is, in fact, when the novel finally begins to show its fantastical attributes. This aspect is probably a little long in being brought to the forefront, especially considering that when it is in the spotlight, it’s less overt than it could be (another good call). But readers can meanwhile revel in Shepard’s skillfully delivered characterizations which are highlighted by insightful introspection and disturbing self-realizations on the parts of the book’s two main characters.
It is often said that a good novel is marked by characters that change as the story progresses. Trujillo not only embraces this concept, it uses it as its core component. Trujillo is beautifully written novel of transformation