Saturday, November 9, 2013

Dolly, meet Matt. Matt, Dolly. You've got a lot in common

Sometimes, it's best not to look back. I re-read my 2010 post about the last Nancy Farmer book I listened to, and noticed that I turned up my superior nose at a proposed sequel to The House of the Scorpion, her 2002 trifecta winner (National Book Award, Newbery Honor, Printz Honor). Three years later, I asked the good folks at the Audiobook Jukebox to send me a copy of said sequel as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program. (So much for consistency.) The real draw for the sequel, though, was its narrator (more below). Since I last read The House of the Scorpion over ten years ago (I hadn't listed it in my ten-years-plus reading record), I thought I should experience the story again -- this time on audio -- before starting on its sequel.

The House of the Scorpion begins at the conception of Matteo Alacrán, created in a laboratory and gestated in a cow. Matt is the clone of El Patrón, the powerful leader of Opium, a country carved out along the border of the U.S. and Mexico (now called Aztlán) that grows poppies and exports opium. El Patrón uses zombie-fied eejits to mindlessly work his poppy fields and serve him on his vast estate.  El Patrón's DNA has produced a number of clones, who are used to replace his failing organs, and he is now 146 years old. Unlike the other clones, however, Matt's brain is not destroyed at infancy, and he is raised in relative comfort by El Patrón's cook, Celia.

When Matt is about five years old, he is discovered by members of El Patrón's family and for a few months, he is kept prisoner in a room and treated as an eejit (i.e., nothing more than an animal); but when El Patrón learns of his presence, he is released and raised and educated as if he were a "real" boy. Despite this, Matt is not accepted by the others in El Patrón's household; his only friends are his beloved Celia, rebellious María Mendoza -- daughter of El Patrón's close ally, a U.S. Senator -- and Tam Lin, one of El Patrón's terrifying bodyguards. It is Tam Lin who helps to prepare Matt for the future, if he's able to escape El Patrón's ultimate plans for him -- which Matt seems unable to comprehend.

As El Patrón's mind and body fails, Celia and Tam Lin conspire to save Matt, but his escape may be more dangerous than staying in Opium.

After ten years, the story has most definitely stood the test of time. I remembered the bare outlines of the story, but not its details (particularly not the delightfully flawed Tam Lin, who seems a worthy predecessor to Paolo Bacigalupi's marvelous half-man, Tool), so a revisit was not a trial in any way.  It's a riveting story with Matt's fate in the balance up until the very end (and that fate is also, finally, in his own hands); and it plumbs some important subjects: the rights and responsibilities of individuals, what lengths should science go, how are governments complicit in drug trafficking, can a terrorist be a good man.  Not least it asks, what is a clone?

As I said above, I was drawn to the sequel, called The Lord of Opium, by its narrator, Raúl Esparza, who also narrates this book. Esparza is a household name to those of us who enjoy live theatre, establishing his career in a number of singing roles. I was thrilled when he began singing a lullaby on this recording ('cause you know I like the singing!). It will be no trial to continue on with the sequel.

He's a pretty good audiobook narrator as well, although he does tend to get a little emphatic in moments of suspense and drama. All the Spanish names and places are pronounced with authenticity. He reads dialogue very well -- there were many lovely character portrayals: Matt -- first a traumatized child and eventually a confident and heroic young man, tender Celia, passionate María, and unflappable Tam Lin who speaks with a pleasant Scots burr. El Patrón's manipulative evil is evident in Esparza's deep, gravelly delivery and scary heh-heh laugh.

Esparza makes some interesting accent decisions, one that a person not of Latino descent might be unable to get away with: he reads most of the novel's nasty adults with variations on Spanish-inflected English (Celia also speaks with this accent, but of course, she is a wholly sympathetic adult), while the young characters (even the evil ones) are portrayed with ethnically neutral American voices. He is skilled at creating a character with a single vocal characteristic while making that character sound like a human being: a young boy Matt meets after he leaves Opium, Fidelito, has a high, breaking voice and the very unpleasant Felicia, El Patrón's daughter-in-law, speaks with the listlessness of a regular laudanum user.

I understand some readers have found a flaw in Farmer's science, as an important plot point requires Matt to share not only El Patrón's DNA, but his fingerprints.  This identical trait does not happen, but I was not perturbed by it. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

[The photograph of the opium poppies was taken by SuperFantastic and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. I learned in this book that the opium is harvested by cutting striations in the bulb and letting the sap ooze out overnight. The hardened sap is scraped off and refined into heroin. But, to refute my statement in the previous paragraph, maybe I shouldn't believe this since Farmer was wrong about the fingerprints.

[Good grief! Dolly the cloned sheep has been stuffed and is on display at the National Museum of Scotland. This photograph, part of the Geograph Project, was taken by Mike Pennington and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Narrated by Raúl Esparza
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2008.  10:43

No comments: