To Catch a Moon
Author: Rym Kechacha
Published: 2 June 2022
Publisher: Unsung Stories
Reviewer: Justin Hickey
Rym Kechacha’s previous novel, Dark River, (2020) is grounded in the grim environmental catastrophes that humanity has faced in the past and may face in the future. In To Catch a Moon, the author performs a winsome about-face in both content and tone. Framing the narrative with a bit of art history, Kechacha introduces a melancholy cast that would seem at home in a tarot deck, or gazing back upon us from a private portrait gallery.
The first person we meet is Remedios Varo, the mid-20th century surrealist painter who left Europe for Mexico. The year is 1955, and Varo contemplates the moon while in her kitchen in Mexico City. She needs inspiration to move her latest painting forward, and so awaits her friend, Leonora, to return with herbs from a bruja that will give her visions. With an owl feather, the artist mixes a concoction that includes toloache, a hallucinogen that “was one of the first to grow from the ashes of the great fire the old gods of the Aztecs sacrificed themselves on to create the world.”
Early in the story—which in this novel is Varo’s feverish creation—the characters play a drawing game. Each creates on paper something from their unconscious in an attempt to “expose the mind to itself.” Readers may get the sense that Kechacha does this same exercise by placing a goat, a beautiful woman, and a lion made of leaves in a circus troupe together. These powerful symbols exist in a world that’s being written and stitched into being, even as they travel the countryside like the performers in Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal. Students of art history, however, may begin to recognise the predominant visual themes from Varo’s actual body of work, like moonlight and owl-women.
The heroine of To Catch a Moon is Alissa, who’s twelve when she’s removed from an orphanage by a strange man. This man, Mandoré, brings her to a Tower to live and work among a group of girls who have all prematurely aged. They work at stitching with magical thread from a pattern that Mandoré dictates. He’s one of Thirteen Earth spirits who’ve been charged—in a contract written by Varo—with the “preservation of all things on the land.” Yet Alissa eventually begins to hear something else: music from a flute. This causes her to sew outside of Mandoré’s pattern. In the fabric of the world, she creates a juggler.
This juggler is enchanting. He wears a red coat, a pointed blue hat, a forked beard; his head looks like a star, and his balls glow as they fly through the air. For this reckless creation, Mandoré banishes Alissa from the Tower and into the world. A collision course is now set for the heroine, her juggler, and the tragic misfits who roam the land.
Principal among these figures is the Lion. He used to be a man, but his love for a witch caused her to transform him into a cursed, primal thing made of leaves. When his circus troupe—which includes the lovely woman Vanna, the goat, and the owl—meets the juggler, the Lion is hesitant to fall for his charisma. He just doesn’t seem right. Yet the juggler’s talent gives him everyone’s ear, and so he convinces the troupe to put on a play. While the troupe rehearses, the Lion stalks off into the forest, looking for deer to chase. He doesn’t mean to hurt them, he just wants to feel the scent of quivering animal trembling in his nose and hear a heartbeat skitter at his approach. He doesn’t find any deer. Instead, he pounces on a leaf drift with his claws outstretched, tearing at the dark earth beneath in a way he will never tear at anything that will bleed, no matter how much he wants to. He doesn’t come back until it is already dark, and no one says they missed him.
Stand a flashy, confident person next to someone who’s unsure and contemplative. The juxtaposition makes an irresistible study. For deeper illumination, Kechacha presents this to us through the lens of an artist and her body of work. Doing so is a fascinating attempt to reach across the decades and align one life with another. In this, the author succeeds. Much of the adventure is hypnotic; it transports readers into Varo’s arcane realm of moonlit ritual and human yearning.
Yet magical realism can sometimes grow thematically burdensome. As fanciful element piles atop fanciful element, and we are meant to invest in the narrative’s momentum, the potential for visceral drama recedes. This is the opposite case in Dark River, with misery so relatable and poignant it vibrates from the page. Here, the more we learn about the Moon’s captured daughter, the more challenging it is to believe that true danger is possible for them.
Nevertheless, Kechacha strives to surprise in every chapter. Her story by the end becomes a frenetic gallery highlighting the odd and misshapen. And even if the stakes don’t quite crystallise, the human component remains as stark as it does in any of Varo’s paintings.