narcisa, Our Lady of the Ashes is the debut novel of the much-hyped poet and famed tattoo artist, Jonathan Shaw. At the heart of the praise dropped from every worthy name you can think of is a stomach-turning, teeth grinding tale of amour fou and the hopelessness of addiction to and a disillusionment of life’s highs in the form of drugs and spiralling love.
Let’s address the hype and then set it to the side, as this is an author who shouldn’t need such introductions: Bukowksi-mentions, Rolling Stone magazine hype, and a string of other shiny names, including Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch, Lydia Lynch and Alice Cooper, may have brought you here. The only thing worse than such glorious hype is the almost inevitable certainty that no writer, book, film or musician can possibly live up to it. A few pages into Narcisa, I said Thank Fuck for that, and didn’t think again about the buzz around this revived cult classic.
This is a reprint, backed by Harper Perennial and Johnny Depp. On the first page we’re met with praise from Depp, who lists every famed writer of a certain ilk as if telling you what you need to hear to keep reading with the subtlety of an over-caffeinated SEO consultant. Hubert Selby Jr, Bukowski, Hemingway, Kerouac, Burroughs, Neil Cassady, Hunter S. Thompson… there are at least ten more, as if afraid of unchecking a Beat legend. But such are the times where such measures are necessary to be heard as a writer, it seems. And, then again, who are we kidding? That’s why we’re here too.
But what does that get you? A combination of appealing ingredients doesn’t necessarily offer a better, or richer taste. Other reviews have been too far led by the aforementioned hype – a little like critics of Pete Doherty unable to see a poet for the former tabloid headlines crying “Junky!” Critics of Shaw speaking in terms of imitations and a lack of originality in light of the aforementioned greats have entered with that preconceived attitude based on the avid praise of celebrities; I’m saying that, if the novel was read by the same people on a blank manuscript, with no idea of where it came from, the reviews would read like this one.
Sure, there’s the teeth-grinding of Beat writing, more Venus in Furs than any sign of Hemingway, with residual conotations of Selby’s Demonic Frank White and the doomed miscreants of Last Exit to Brooklyn, and certainly a slight familiarity to Neal Cassady’s writing in The First Third – but this is only slightly relatable perhaps because Cassady too was a student of Kerouac and Ginsberg et al – see On the Road’s Dean asking Sal to teach him to write.
But we’re not talking about what other authors sound like, as if you want them… go read them. We’re here for Shaw in his own right as an author. The pages turn and the dropped names dissipate, and you’re vividly immersed in the throes of narrator Cigano’s hopeless addiction to Narcisa who personifies the luring, impassioned, tantalising and devastating devilry of our protagonist’s other mistress: drugs. Just as he knows the depravity of drugs and the crack addiction that fuels her, he is all too aware – and poetically so – about the destructiveness and inability to turn away from Narcisa herself.
And so, without ruining anything for you, the book is borne of the fleeting beauty and fragility of love affair destined to burn out, not to last. Authentic as the smell of the Brazilian streets, Narcisa’s cackle and rants, and Cigano’s passive passenger along for the ride, Shaw delivers the ugliness with self-aware poetry.
Yet, if you’re after something precious and delicate, this is not it. With Shaw you’re in the company of an ever-burgeoning madness kept under knowing control. This is where similarities between Shaw and Bukowski may be taken as we’re guided into the sordid underbelly of hopeless love that you’ve relished before through Bukowski’s eyes.
It is difficult to be shocked anymore, and this book will lie on the nightstand of many a desensitised reader possibly unmoved by all that the rave reviews name “diabolical” – or so it would seem. In fact, Shaw manages to con you into following in Ignacio Valencia Lobos’ disillusionment, and it is only when you surface you realise exactly how diabolical the witnessed events are in reality.
This is a book that is not flattered by the limitations of genre categories, “book-types” and synopses. The story of violent passion, sex, fall outs, reunion, in driving a reader becomes repetitive, but for lovers and haters rings painfully true of the cyclical nature of such amour fou. I’d wager a review by a gilted lover, or embittered ex would find a higher solace/ refuge in these pages than one by someone seeking a story.
Let’s talk in strengths and weaknesses, lest this all sounds like something you wanted to hear; the opening pages of italics at the start are unwelcoming. For an author of such steadfast storytelling, at times trying to present a demeanour that is unflinching and unapologetic for the details, winks of a debut novelist peak through in the constant use of similies; with everything like something sometimes revealing the vulnerable dip in confidence of a second-guessing writer otherwise narrating a world met head on. I would have him keep in the same direction of the path he’s on with his lyrical prose, but sprint through the hurdles, knocking down the “likes” and feelings and tell us only what is and should be.
An almost passive narrator at times – but such is the reality of such a blistering, amour fou. Cigano is not so much Kerouac’s Sal to Dean Moriarty, but rather Nick Carraway to Gatsby, or Sacher-Masoch’s Severin with Narcisa’s world happening to him.
Ultimately, the jewel of this novel lies in Narcisa herself, so perfectly-painted I could hear Narcisa’s voice in my head, at times so immersed that I wanted to tear away from the black, white and red-bound pages, wondering why I’m putting myself through an account of this person I believed I once knew and had been so glad to be rid of. Such is Shaw’s ability to place you in the 6-6 tattooed gyspsy thug’s shoes.
Such a buzz around any book is welcome, especially at a time when formulas sell, and a story must be linear, adaptable to the screen, breeding a generation of readers unable to immerse themselves in a novel of such insight and of a spectrum of this. Narcisa is as exciting as the hype said, yet with an authenticity of its own that doesn’t need the plastic cover of the attached famous names. The problem is, now we want more… As Narcisa would say: “Thank-you, come again! Next?”