“The Woman Who Lost Her Soul’’ starts out as a murder mystery. A woman who had been vacationing with her husband at a Haitian resort called Moulin Sur Mer in 1998 is murdered on the Route Nationale One between Port-au-Prince and Saint-Marc — a road nicknamed the “Highway to Hell” by the American military forces occupying Haiti at the time.
“And of course it was not a simple homicide, because it was Haiti,” Bob Shacochis writes with deadpan irony. And so begins a bizarre and head-spinning journey through the complex, clandestine, double-dealing, and toxic global drama of the half-century leading up to the 9/11 attacks. This novel amounts to a prequel of sorts to the war on terror, an epic examination of American foreign policy and loss of innocence, a worthy successor to the darkest works of Graham Greene and John le Carré.
Shacochis, who won a National Book Award in 1985 for first fiction for his first story collection, “Easy in the Islands,’’ served in the Peace Corps in the Caribbean, and wrote “The Immaculate Invasion’’ after spending 18 months on the ground with US special forces during the 1994 military intervention in Haiti. His perspective on history is voiced early in his new novel: “when Americans pray, they pray first that history will step aside and leave them alone, they pray for the deafness that comes with a comfortable life. They pray for the soothing blindness of happiness, and why not? But history walks on all of us, lashed by time, and sometimes we feel its boot on our backs, and sometimes we are oblivious to its passing.”
The chunk of American history he presents in “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul’’ ranges from the Balkans during World War II to Cold War Turkey to the Clinton-era peacekeeping missions (with a well-drawn cameo appearance in Zagreb by Richard Holbrooke). The novel unfolds in five sections. In the first, Shacochis returns to what he once called “the boneyard carnival that was Haiti.” His narrator, Tom Harrington, a journalist turned human rights lawyer, hopes to create a truth commission in the “postfunctional’’ Haiti of the late 1990s.
Tom encounters the woman of the novel’s title in 1996 at the Hotel Montana in Port au Prince. A journalist from The Guardian introduces her as Jacqueline Scott, a novice photojournalist. Tom, a married man with a middle-school daughter, is riveted by her beauty. “I’ve lost my soul,” she confesses and seeks redemption at a voodoo temple. He concludes she’s nuts, but he’s nonetheless drawn into her web. When Tom returns to Haiti in 1998 to help investigate the murder of the American tourist, he realizes the woman killed was Jackie Scott, under a different name. And she was likely working undercover for the US government.
Shacochis sketches in the backstory to his ambitious narrative by taking us next on a harrowing journey through Croatia in 1944 and 1945, during the final days of the Nazi occupation. Eight-year-old Stjepan Kovacevic is introduced to “his destiny, the spiritual map that guides each person finally to the door of the cage that contains his soul,” Shacochis writes. The boy witnesses his father brutally beheaded in his own house by partisans, who decide to leave the child alive. His father had been the former Ustashe vice commander who had orchestrated the pogroms in central Bosnia. The boy’s vow to avenge his father echoes through the rest of the novel.
“Tradecraft,” the novel’s third section, set in Istanbul in 1986, gives voice to the woman who has lost her soul — Jackie Scott, a.k.a. Dottie Chambers, the teenage daughter of Stjepan, now Steve Chambers, the Croatian boy whose psyche was mangled in the war. He’s an American diplomat, sliding in and out of sticky places, tutoring his daughter in the art of spying and tainting her body and soul. Dottie is attuned to his duplicity. Her father lies “as protocol, as policy, as a matter of prudence, because not to lie placed lives in jeopardy, and to tell the truth exposed a weakness in character: To not lie was an act of vanity.” In a series of snapshots, growing ever more sinister, Shacochis reveals Dottie’s innocence betrayed.
In the fourth section, “The Friends of Golf,” Steve Chambers calls Master Sergeant Eville Burnette back from his Special Forces mission in Haiti to caddy for him in Miami in a golf threesome of high-level handlers whose fingerprints are all over American foreign policy. Chambers begins weaving Ev into their blackest missions, telling him, “We don’t fly under the radar, son . . . We are the radar. We’re not operating with situational values here.”
Ev, whom Tom Harrington had introduced to Jackie Scott in 1996, takes the lead in Shacochis’s narrative now. In a daring maneuver, the author replays the murder that opens the novel, retracing steps, making connections, revealing a covert operation involving drug dealing and zombies.
Shacochis opens his fifth and final section with the elegiac lines, “This is how the dead come back to us, he thinks, rotting angels, bagged and tagged and shipped home to America in the deceptively clean and shiny crates of their uselessness.” Burnette is our witness once again. In a haunting and beautifully written passage describing Ev’s brief week of R&R on an uninhabited island on the Outer Banks, Shacochis unleashes a late-season hurricane and a torrent of erotic love so pure it seems to promise an unlikely recovery, if not redemption.
But absolution is not his story here. There is no healing, no turning back. “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul’’ is a searching and searing meditation on the questions someone might ask a century from now: Who were these Americans? How should history judge them? And us?Jane Ciabattari is vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.