What you have here is a debut novel that is the work of the first new writer I have taken on in a decade. To say I am excited about the novel and the writer is an understatement. Lili Wright is a mature woman who has travelled, lived, and thought a great deal about the worlds she has moved through. It shows in the power of her themes, in her sensitive understanding of her seriously flawed characters, and in her extraordinary grasp of the contradictions embedded in the Mexican culture. She is that rare American who has thrown off her carapace of privilege to understand Mexico, whose deeply fatalistic people must manage to survive amid the ferocious drug wars and top-down corruption that are corroding the heart and soul of this bedeviled country. “Poor Mexico, so near Los Estados Unidos, so far from God.”
Lili Wright has crafted a literary thriller: A novel of propulsive power, it is told in short chapters and many voices. At the center of the plot is the attempt to recover an artifact purported to be the death mask of Montezuma. It has been found by a looter, a meth-addicted American in the employ of a ruthless narco drug lord who wants that mask for his own collection. But so do many others, including an expat American collector, a former Oaxacan museum director who now makes money providing (false) provenances for looted artifacts, the addled grave-robber himself, and Anna Ramsay, a young American who knows that getting hold of the mask will save her father’s reputation as an expert, a reputation that has just been savaged in a report claiming many of the masks in his collection are forgeries. The setting is ripe for multiple double-crosses. Even the secondary characters have secret agendas and how these play out is complex and unpredictable.
But what gives this novel its psychological power is its multifaceted exploration of how we hide ourselves in plain sight. The front we present to the world is just another mask.
As Reyes, the drug lord, says, “Everyone loves masks. Because everyone has something to hide.” Indeed, he himself is such a master of disguise that no one can describe him. He is a shape shifter of outlandish proportions and would be a character in an opera buffa were he not a coldblooded killer. Just as chilling is the expat collector, Thomas Malone. “A man in a mask,” he says, “is above the law. He makes his own rules, his own moral code.” Wright is masterful in the way she slowly builds his psychopathology.
Anna herself says, “I’ve worn a mask most of my life. For years I thought wearing a mask was a way to start over, become someone new. Now I know better.” Anna is a very wounded woman, but there is not an ounce of self-pity in her and it is Lili Wright’s extraordinary craft that makes us sympathetic to her even as we wait to find out the source of her emotional scarring. She is a heroine for the moment—think “Orange is the New Black,” think the female version of “Breaking Bad.”
Dancing with the Tiger is filled with a large and richly conceived cast, a mix of expats and Mexicans from all social strata. None of them are mere walk-ons, all are brought movingly to life in Wright’s talented hands. It is a highly sensual novel and also an erotic novel in the worst way, and it is sprinkled with very quotable one-liners and acid observations: black humor at its finest. (Anna thinks: “chastity, like abstinence, was a virtue best begun tomorrow.”) This is grown-up fiction: Always gripping, often frightening, yet oddly touching. You care about these people.
The debut writer I took on ten years ago was Olga Grushin, author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov, which earned her a place on Granta’s Best Young American Novelists (2) in 2007, won her the NYPL Young Lion’s prize that same year, brought her a nomination for the LATimes First Novel award and made her one of three finalists for England’s Orange Prize. The thrill I felt on first reading that novel was just what happened when I read Dancing with the Tiger. I’m really excited about Lili and ready to run with the novel.