High anxiety appealingly fuels every page of San Francisco’s writer Vendela Vida’s new novel “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty.”
The journey of a 30-something woman, whose solo trip to Casablanca, Morocco begins with her black backpack going missing when she checks into her hotel (on page 10) is thoroughly unique, and gripping.
Remarkably, Vida’s use of the second person and her concise, direct sentence structure, are engaging rather than off-putting. Neither is the fact that the protagonist’s real name isn’t readily revealed.
Yet the wry character (even though she is described as “you” on every page) is anything but distant. Her thoughts, observations, perceptions, actions and remembrances are simultaneously intriguing, befuddling, scary, funny and touching.
The less pretty of a pair of fraternal twins from Florida (a competitive diver in high school with a skin condition caused by teen acne) becomes increasingly sympathetic as the book progresses, as the cause of her trip, and her pain, comes to light, in not a gradual fashion, but ultimately powerful, way.
What happens to her along the way is wild. When she goes to the police to claim the pack that was reported stolen, she deliberately takes a different bag – one that isn’t hers. She assumes the name on the passport in it, and uses the credit card to patronize an upscale hotel, where a film starring an A-list American actress (whose name is never mentioned) is being shot.
Surprisingly, as are most of the outrageous (but somehow wonderfully believable) occurrences in the book, she’s approached by the movie’s producers to be a stand-in for the star, who takes a shining to her, and befriends her in that way powerful folks relate to people beneath them.
She ends up in more unlikely situations: up front at a Patti Smith concert as the actress’ guest (one of the book’s best lines: “You always wondered who the assholes were who came late to a concert and took up a whole row near the stage, and now you know”), and even going on a date with one of the actress’ beaus, an older man.
These plentiful, pointed details comprise the backbone of “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty,” ultimately a satisfying rumination on questions of identity. And this book’s title, not esoteric after all, comes from the translated title of a poem by Rumi the heroine finds in a book she picks up on the movie set, a fancy Morocco home.
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty
By: Vendela Vida
Published by: HarperCollins
Note: Vida appears at 7 p.m. June 4 at Books, Inc., at 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F., and at noon June 6 at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley.