Leonora Gelb came to Peru to make a difference. A passionate and idealistic Stanford grad, she left a life of privilege to fight poverty and oppression, but her beliefs are tested when she falls in with violent revolutionaries. While death squads and informants roam the streets and suspicion festers among the comrades, Leonora plans a decisive act of protest—until her capture in a bloody government raid, and a sham trial that sends her to prison for life.
Novels about writers can be a recipe for self-indulgence, but this is beautifully executed. The shifting dynamics in the cell’s safe house in an upper-class Lima neighbourhood are gripping, and there’s also dry humour in Altschul’s alter-ego Andres’s anxiety over whether he can place Leo’s story in the necessary geopolitical context ... but this is a multi-layered, immersive novel in which the atmosphere and history of Peru leap off the page.
The author of two other novels, Altschul has also written about U.S. politics, with a righteous indignation not unlike Leo’s. Still, he is most insightful when dissecting the romantic allure, for a certain kind of left-leaning Westerner, of a third world country whose social reality seems more black and white, the solutions simpler ... Unfortunately, Altschul fails to convincingly imagine how a young, middle-class American Jewish woman, whatever her priors, could make the leap to armed struggle ... Leo’s radicalization is improbably swift, driven in equal parts by ideology and mere petulance. Her Peruvian comrades, meanwhile, read like revolutionary caricatures ... The novel’s sharpest insight may lie in connecting Andres’s selfish reinvention with Leo’s apparently selfless one. Both are acts of privilege, unavailable to people from poor countries.
I was instantly into this faux-biographical novel, carried away by its sweeping epic tale and Altschul’s stylish narrative ... The question the novel appears to address is what turns an ordinary, kind hearted, responsible college girl into a terrorist? But that isn’t what is going on here at all. We never quite get to that, not fully, not convincingly, that would matter if this was a thriller, but it’s not what Altschul wants to get to in my opinion. The inner truth we find is more likely to be our own than Leo’s. The Gringa is more about the author’s reinvention of character and presentation of history as a reflection of his values, his schooling, his thinking, it’s the reinvention of a person, which, once in print, is as indelible as the reality whether it matches or not. The meaning of words such as terrorist, or partisan, activist or even democracy shift through time and from place to place, they can’t be pinned down ... The novel has an epic quality, the style is fragmentary ... This is a very readable book despite the complex ambition of the author, it’s fun, exhilarating, provoking. The tour de force is the psychological portrait of the biographer, Andres, still it’s only one version of Andres.