The Universal and the Specific in CHASING THE SUN by Natalia Sylvester

peruvian-chicha-morada-02Months ago, Natalia recounted one of her challenges on the journey toward publication: Peru, her homeland. The same homeland that is so intrinsic to her novel CHASING THE SUN was exactly what led to rejections. Namely, that such an exotic, little-known setting would be a difficult sell. In fact, Natalia was asked to somehow connect the story to the United States!

Once you read her novel you will understand why that was the silliest suggestion anyone could have made. I had to laugh when I heard this because I was in Peru at about the same time the novel takes place (1992), when the Shining Path terrorists were on the rampage. I remember the hills surrounding Lima, and the large camp fires burning up there. I remember the lights going off in my section of the city and someone telling me that this was just the terrorists again. I remember traveling on my own, always careful, sometimes downright scared.

It was a scary place to be, but I was just passing through. Imagine being a citizen who had to live with violence and terrorism day in and day out. It’s a more common story than we in the U.S. tend to think about, and Natalia asks us to ponder it through her story about how one family copes with a kidnapping.

The human condition is the human condition, wherever we live, wherever our stories are set. Natalia paints a portrait of the Jimenez family that is so specific and so true, that it becomes universal. We can all connect to poor Andres, struggling to do the right thing; to his kidnapped wife, who has been unhappy for awhile; to his daughter, who doesn’t understand what’s going on but just wants her mom; to his angry son on the edge of manhood.

The specifics about life in Peru lend this novel it’s uniqueness at the same time that it sets the story in a time and place that opens our eyes to what families just like ours live through in strife-ridden, third-world countries.

I loved this interplay between the universal and the specific in CHASING THE SUN. For example, take this quiet moment, when Andres says:

“Maybe prepare some fresh chicha.” They usually buy the purple corn drink bottled from the store, but made fresh it fills the house with the sweet aroma of cloves and the boiled pineapple chunks mixed in.

Chicha! My mouth watered when I read this. I loved this drink, and I’d forgotten all about it. It’s so specific to the region, yet this moment in which Andres wants homemade juice rather than store-bought could take place in any household the world over. We can all relate to the comfort of homemade smells, right?

I’m going off point here, but I also want to mention something else I admired about the novel. This is a literary novel, so I wasn’t expecting to be left hanging at the end of scenes the same way I’d expect out of a thriller. Yet, somehow Natalia did just that. Instead of action-oriented cliffhangers, she’d leave us with emotional zingers. I learned something — I learned that this is just as effective to get me turning pages as a whiz-bang-boom scene ending. Here’s one example:

Every day that she stays there means another day he hasn’t paid, and that’s what scares Andres the most–after all these years, Marabela will finally have proof that she was right about him all along.

Reading that, don’t you want to know what Marabela was right about all along?

Do you have experience living or traveling in violent countries? What was your experience of the people in those countries?

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Lisa Alber is the author of KILMOON, A COUNTY CLARE MYSTERY (March 2014). Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging at Lisa Alber's Words at Play round out her distractions. Visit her at

This article has 10 Comments

    1. Mmmm …. Chicha. Peru is where I first ate ceviche too–that was a revelation. Now, of course, it’s all the rage here in the states. We have a restaurant in Portland called “Andina,” Andean regional cuisine. I got there as often as I can!

  1. Great cliffhanger! I love that the novel is set in Peru. One of the most fun things to me about reading is getting to understand a culture that I don’t know anything about. Thanks for sharing, Lisa!

  2. I got pickpocketed in Russia in 1992…does that count? Luckily I was with a group who helped me cover my expenses until I could get my travelers checques replaced later in the week.

    1. Getting pickpocketed counts for sure! As a matter of fact, I was pickpocketed while in Peru too. I was on the so-called “indian train” up to Macchu Picchu, and, man, the pickpockets (it was a team job) were good. End result: Had to return to Lima and bribe officials to get a new passport–so corrupt. It was quite the adventure.

  3. “In fact, Natalia was asked to somehow connect the story to the United States!”

    I thought that only happened later, when the novel was optioned by Hollywood! 🙂

    (At one point there was an idea of setting the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the US, which would have been equally ludicrous.)

    1. Hah, so true, Anthony! If Hollywood got its hands on CHASING THE SUN, I can see them moving the story to Mexico and having the US link occur through a drug smuggling angle or some such thing, with some poor US Marshall caught up in the kidnapping and falls in love … blah blah blah … They’d ruin the story, in other words. 🙂

      (But would any author care? Selling the movie rights would be awesome!)

      1. I remember reading an interview with Kurt Vonnegut once where he was asked if it had harmed his books that some of them had been made into bad movies. He gestured at the bookcase in his office and said, “There they are. They’re fine.”

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