Unpredictable Crossing by Lynn K. Mandelbaum (Book Review #2)

unpredictable1Reviewed by Michelle St. James

Unpredictable Crossing tells the story of three people on a cruise to Portugal who share a past in the war-torn country of Mozambique.

Tristi the stewardess was the sole survivor of a genocidal massacre on her village, passenger Amanda Allmond was a missionary nurse who met Tristi after her family’s murder, and Colonel Perreira, another passenger, gave the orders to destroy Tristi’s village. Joanna-Lynn K. Mandelbaum draws upon her extensive knowledge of Mozambique history to paint a picture, via flashback, of the stain genocide leaves on anyone touched by it. Also, fans of Mandelbaum’s earlier novel An Unspoken Farewell should enjoy visiting Amanda’s life ten years after her return to the United States.

The idea behind this book is fascinating and the psychological implications nearly endless. Unfortunately, the execution never lives up to the potential. Mandelbaum paints her characters with a very broad brush: Perreira, in addition to ordering genocidal attacks, is a batterer and constant bully who made a hobby of shooting homeless people in Rio. Amanda, we are repeatedly told, is a good, selfless woman with a kind, devoted husband. Tristi is the sweet, scared victim forced to relive her past. I prefer characters to have more shades of gray, both because it’s more realistic, and because it builds better tension and character conflict. Perreira’s daughter, Judite, is perhaps the most fleshed-out character: a confused and lonely, slightly bratty twelve year old girl who learns too young how to protect herself.

I had a hard time becoming involved in the story because Mandelbaum’s writing is a bit dry with occasionally stilted dialogue and she focuses too much on unimportant details and telling when she could be showing. Her knowledge of history, Portuguese, and cruising are impressive, but the footnotes detailing cruising customs and historic events kept the narrative from flowing smoothly and occasionally pulled me out of the story altogether. Perhaps appendices would have been a better choice. Her penchant for using Portuguese with the English translation in parentheses was another distraction, as were dropped-in details that confused the novel’s timeframe. Chapter one tells us the cruise is ten years after Amanda was in Mozambique, or sometime in the early to mid 1980s, but Judite watches The Perfect Storm, a film from 2000, in the ship’s theater. That is a petty detail, but this novel which should have been crackling with tension was surprisingly lackluster and any moment that takes the reader out of the narrative further depresses the suspense.

The flashbacks sprinkled throughout the novel were my favorite sections. The characterization was crisper and the writing more emotionally involving. Narratively, the last third of Unpredictable Crossing is the strongest. The plot moves fast and the reader is offered a rare glimpse into the horrors of genocide and the ease with which we can either ignore or forget such crises. Tristi’s reaction to Perreira is both heartbreaking and realistic, as is her need to cling to Amanda, a friendly face from her devastating past. The transformation of Lucia, Perreira’s wife, is swift but cheer worthy, and watching friendships deepen while Tristi and Amanda face up to and release their pasts is satisfying. I wish the climax and final resolution had been less clearly telegraphed, but overall I was pleased with the ending. This is far from a perfect novel, but it is worth reading for the flashbacks alone. The hopeful ending and fitting resolutions for the characters will also leave most readers satisfied even as they continue to ponder the devastation of genocide.

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