The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

… that shape being an amorphous mass… 


A man, who shares the name and life of the author, tells the story of umpteen real assassinations in Colombia and America. I abandoned it at page 270 – just after the halfway mark – so maybe a fascinating plot emerges after that. One thing’s for sure, it didn’t emerge before it!

It starts off quite well, telling the story of how the narrator got sucked into a little group of conspiracy theorists who believed that there was more to the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitan, a leading left-wing Colombian political figure, than the authorities had allowed to be revealed. At this point I thought I was going to love it, and I raced through the first 150 or so pages, during which the book compares Gaitan’s assassination and associated conspiracy theories to those surrounding the assassination of JFK, and discusses how both events adversely affected the nations in which they happened; in the case of Colombia, leading to years of violence. Then suddenly the book moves back in time to tell, in detail, of the assassination (and associated conspiracy theories) of Rafael Uribe Uribe, another leading left-wing political figure, in 1914, with a bit of comparison to the assassination carried out by Gavrilo Princip that provided the trigger for WW1. Okay, I could go along with that, though it was beginning to feel very much like a history of Colombia told backwards.

Then suddenly the book moves back in time again to tell, in detail, of the attempted assassination of some other guy whose name escapes me but was doubtless another leading left-wing political figure, at some date which I couldn’t care less about. By now I had reached about page 250 – a week that took me. The following three days saw me advance by twenty pages, so I had to conclude that the book had well and truly lost my interest, and I abandoned it.

My theory of fiction writing is – find a story, tell it, then stop. All the other meanings one wants to explore should be incorporated into that basic format. If there is no story, or as in this case, if the author loses track of the story for hundreds of pages while he recounts in immense detail lots of history backwards, then it’s not a novel. If one wants to write a history of assassinations and their impact, do that. If one wants to write an essay on why conspiracy theories arise and how they affect the political life of a country, do that. If one wants to write a novel, stick to the story. Great writers can include all three, but only the first two are optional.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Some reviewers have compared the writing to Javier Marías. Some see this as a good thing, others not so much. I fall into the latter camp. I’ve only read one book by Marías and I agree the rambling circuitous over-wordy style is similar. However, Marías’ writing, while it rather drove me up the wall, at least contains some beautiful prose and some truly thought-provoking ideas and images. The writing in this one is plain to the point of being monotone, with fifty words for every ten that are required; and for the most part is a straight recounting of (I assume true) facts, including photos and extracts from documents. I tried to assume that perhaps it was my ignorance of Colombian history that was causing me to lose all interest, but frankly if a British writer started by telling a story about Thatcher, then backtracked to Churchill, then Disraeli, I’d have found it equally tedious, interesting though I find each of those people individually. Given that there were another 240 pages to go, I was concerned we might end up back at Cain and Abel and the associated conspiracy theories that no doubt grew up around that…

The book probably deserves more, but since it failed to maintain my interest enough to keep me turning pages, one star it is.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

50 thoughts on “The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

  1. On the upside… A famous FF one star review hurrah! And what a brilliantly entertaining review it is! Down side… I was really excited for this book at first, the initial extracts you shared seemed great and conspiracy theories and assassinations are often thrilling, especially where political figures are concerned. Left or right wing, I don’t care – bump them all off! What a great disappointment this is, but it’s made my day to have a super one star review to start my day 🙂 Also – if anyone fancies writing conspiracy theories about Cain and Abel, I would definitely like to read that, so please get on it 🙂

  2. Sorry to hear this was such a disappointment, FictionFan. The main topic sounds interesting, and I can see why you thought you were going to love it at first. But I couldn’t agree more: tell the story, and then be done with it. It sounds as though the book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be (a novel/story, a history, a…..) and that just adds to the mishmash. Well *sigh of relief* my TBR is safe! 😉

    • It was a pity because by all rights it should have been my ideal book – politics, conspiracies, interesting location, etc., etc… oh well! But I do feel he spent so much time going over the history that he’d have been better off writing a history book. And the odd thing is, then I’d probably have read it and enjoyed it! But a novel needs more than facts…

  3. Sorry for the pain. I agree with you in all the bad points and failed execution. I mean, I have not read it, but when I find all that in books, I just don’t think they are well written. (Javier Marias is an author I want to read)

    • It was a pity because it had all the ingredients for the kind of book I love, but he got so bogged down in actual history that it stopped feeling like a novel at all. I’ve only read one Marias – A Heart So White. I found a lot in there that was interesting, but his style of writing – a kind of stream of consciousness – didn’t work for me. It’s a style I never enjoy. But his prose can be wonderful and the book was full of thought-provoking ideas. Hope you enjoy him when you get to him… 😀

      • Maybe in Spanish he speaks to me. Funny that I also don’t click with stream of consciousness either. We have some interesting overlaps in what we value in books. And I do always love reading your reviews.

        • Thank you! 🙂 I’d be interested to hear how he seems to you in Spanish – I imagine stream of consciousness must present a challenge to translators. Funnily enough, translation is one of the subjects he goes into in A Heart So White – quite interestingly, too, about how it can distort meanings and so on.

          • That’s bumped the book. I don’t have it, but I am determined to get that title. I love translation. I have read stream of conscience in original Spanish and English, and I did a bit better with Spanish, but it could be the topic and the particular author. I will keep you posted.

    • There have been more positive reviews of it, but also several people saying much the same as me sadly. It sounds as if it’s going to be so good too… oh well! Plenty more books out there! 😀

  4. You and I are the only two bloggers I can think of who abandon novels and then review them. I wish others would do the same!

    When I was working on my MFA, my thesis advisor always said let writing be what it needs to be. Don’t turn a short story into a novella. Don’t turn a poem into a short story, etc. Usually, this comment was about bloated writing.

    • I agree. A lot of people seem to think it’s not fair to review a book they can’t finish, but so long as they’ve read enough to be able to explain what the problem was, then I think it’s as valid as any other review.

      I wish authors would let the story determine the length more often. So often a book feels as if it’s been padded out to achieve some ideal length. In this one, it was as if he’d inserted an entire history book in the middle of the plot!

  5. A great review – sorry about the book. “Start at the beginning, go on to the end, and then stop” should be graven in letters of fire on the desks of all writers desks.

    • Thanks! Yeah, it was a pity – it sounded as if it should be just my kind of thing too. I know – let the story determine the length, not the other way round!!

    • Yeah, I’m trying to get more relaxed about abandoning books if they’re not working for me, but I still find myself struggling on. Which just makes my reviews even grumpier… 😉

  6. Brilliant review, I particularly loved the line about Cain and Abel! Sorry to hear this wasn’t one for you and advancing so slowly is a sign it is time to put a book to one side and find another with a proper story (if it’s a novel)

    • Haha – could you tell I was feeling a bit bitter? 😉 Yes, I’m trying to get better at abandoning books but I’d already invested so much time in this one that I kept struggling on way past the point where I should have admitted defeat…

  7. How did this thing ever get published?? I fear you persevered long after I would have stopped reading, FF. I love words as much as the next writer, but this sounds pretty dreadful. Sometimes you win one; other times, you move onto something else.

    • I know – I’d already invested so much time in it, I really struggled in long past the point where I should have given up. Gah! I am trying to get better at abandoning books that don’t work for me, though…

  8. I agree with your theory of fiction writing – I think sometimes the authors have done so much research they just can’t bear to leave anything out, to the detriment of their story.

    • Yes, I think that’s been a real problem over the last few years in fiction writing, and it drives me crazy. I don’t know what the secret is of getting the balance right between story and research, but sometimes it just feels ‘right’ and then other times it feels like total overload…

  9. A very fair review! Several years ago I read Vásquez’ The Sound of Things Falling. However, even now rereading a sample, I cannot recall it at all. I know I didn’t put it in my notable list, otherwise it’s a blank. My memory is pretty sieve-like, but I can usually reactivate at least a trace if I try: perhaps not having any traces tells its own story!

    • And I’ve just noticed that some years ago I also read Vásquez’ The Informers which I did rate more highly. Again, my memory is not sharp, but I think while it is a pretty dense read, I did ultimately find it a worthwhile one.

      • With this one, I really felt he had just got so steeped in history he forgot he was supposed to be writing a novel. I could imagine he could be good if he actually stuck to the story… maybe one day I’ll try another of his books – but not for a while! 😉

    • Oh dear, I kinda got the impression from other reviews that The Sound of Things Falling was supposed to be better than this one too! I find that over-wordy style is actually likely to make my attention wander so that I take in less than I would of something much shorter and to the point.

    • Oh, I’m glad I’m not alone! The first couple of review I saw were pretty enthusiastic, but I’ve seen more since then from people who felt like us…

  10. You tried your best. I think I will read this one, as I heard him speak at Hay and it sounded interesting (plus, I quite like the Latin verbosity and going off on a tangent). But I’m glad I didn’t buy the hardcover!

    • I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it. Some reviewers have loved it, and I did enjoy the first third or so, but then it lost me and I couldn’t even get up the willpower to force my way through to the end…

  11. I read Marias’s “Corazon tan blanco”. Stream of conscience didn’t feel that stream of conscience, ha ha ha. Definitely, reading this in Spanish felt easy to me that stream of conscience in English. I think I do pauses in my language better, like I can sustain meaning and grammar for longer, or add the needed rests and pauses in my head. As for translation, nothing indicates he’d be more difficult in English. I don’t know if there’s a different quality or difficulty to stream of conscience in English per se, or in our own languages it’s easier, or if it also depends on our preferences and what style or even author we are talking about.
    As for the book, I may still review it, but life has gotten complicated with my mom’s grave illness and an unexpected death of a young mom we know, but I gladly tell you my opinion here, (distractions are welcome too at this time, 😉
    I started loving it. His prose was easy, I was cruising, and the story kept me interested. The talk about translation, his reflections on memory, etc., they were welcome, it had a good feel, and I connected and got invested in the mystery. By half way till the end, his repetitions felt a tad annoying, and it’s like he run out of depth, and his sharp points of the beginning of the book, when repeated, felt flat, more like platitudes. I won’t say it was a failure, nor a waste of time. At the intro, he says he never re-reads, only parts of a character he’ll use again, (like Berta who shows up in this book, and to whom he devoted an entire novel, “Berta”, duh, lol.) I guess I’m trying to say that, in the scope of my personal reading life, I thought it’d be a favorite author, but it just got to be an OK-good book that leaves me not yearning to read more by him, but also not totally opposed to the idea. Like you, yes, something in it, or the whole book, has surely stayed with me. He’s not a bad story teller. Characters are interesting in his novels, but at times, I think I saw a bit too much of himself in the women specially, (his dad and male characters were better drafted, more autonomous, the women, it bothered me they are always seen under the male’s lens. But I’m not a big feminist, and I may also be wrong in accusing him so quickly. I may be making something out of nothing, 🙂
    Veredict: OK to very nice in some parts. An interesting read.

  12. Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been offline watching tennis last week. I’m also sorry to hear about your mother – I hope she’s on the road to recovery.

    That’s very interesting. It sounds as if our reactions were similar in quite a lot of way. I though he did the stream of consciousness very well and found it reasonably easy to read – it’s just not a style of writing I enjoy. And I loved some of the ideas in the book, especially around translation, and in the differences between dating someone and being married to them. But I too felt he repeated too much and got bored halfway through. Some of the scenes still stand out vividly in my mind though – like the narrator watching the woman in the street who was waiting for her date to turn up, so he’s clearly skilled at creating a scene. I might read more by him sometime, but I wasn’t left with an urgent desire to rush out and get all his other books. However, this one, by making me think about him, also made me realise that I think I probably underrated him at the time I reviewed him…

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