Ellen Jones

The Dust Never Settles by Karina Lickorish Quinn


The Dust Never Settles by Karina Lickorish Quinn, Oneworld, 2021, £9.99 (paperback)

This novel is pitched as the story of Anaïs Echeverría Gest, a British-Peruvian girl who returns to Lima, pregnant, after years abroad, in order to prevent the sale of her grandparents’ mansion to developers. The enormous yellow house is partially derelict and populated by the ghosts of previous occupants, including many generations of Anaïs’s illustrious family and all the staff who have worked there over the years, whose lives and family lineages interweave with those of their employers. But in truth the novel is not really Anaïs’s story at all. In fact, the apparent protagonist is a sometimes-nebulous character whose motivations are hard to pin down; there is a blurriness around her and her actions in what is ostensibly the novel’s narrative present that prevents her from coming entirely into focus. Meanwhile, through that blurriness, the dead take centre stage. The Dust Never Settles is their story, not Anaïs’s, despite what the book blurb might say.

This imaginative, ambitious debut full of ghosts is a welcome invigoration of magic realism that puts women at the centre of its storytelling. Written in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez, right down to the yellow butterflies gracing its jacket design, it weaves together the darker threads of Peru’s national history while relying on an Andean understanding of time and space as cyclical: ‘every point on the Earth had been and was being and would again be visited and revisited by the moments that had passed already, infinite times before’.

The most important character among this novel’s ‘retired from living’ is Julia Álvarez Yupanqui, latterly Santa Julia, who was working as young Anaïs’s maid in the Echeverría household when she fell out of a window and died, aged seventeen. Julia’s death and subsequent resurrection allow the author to tell the stories of those forgotten or erased from official histories. These include other servants who worked in the house, slaves on whose labour generations of Echeverrías built their wealth, and the poor inhabitants of Los Polvos, a plot of land originally earmarked for a family cemetery but reclaimed after the Agrarian Reform of the 1960s, where Julia’s own family built their modest home.

On her death, Julia acquires the ability to see the nation’s entire history through the eyes of those she encounters. She also discovers she can carry out small miracles in aid of those around her: she can make a seamstress sew twice as fast, can double the number of coins in a beggar’s hat, or charm a bottle of water so it never runs dry. Through Julia’s kindly interactions with the inhabitants of Los Polvos, Lickorish Quinn traces a long and convoluted Echeverría family tree right back to the founding patriarch (a Spanish pauper who invented status and wealth for himself on escaping to the New World) and beyond. Along the way, we learn about people whose lives have long been absent from the national imaginary: a Chinese labourer brought over in the nineteenth century to work as a guano miner, a man left homeless after the anti-Japanese pogroms of 1940, an enslaved Luba woman shipped to Cartagena and stripped of her name and language along the way.  

We learn, too, that there has been a series of mysterious deaths in the Echeverría house: a baby who lived only a few days but whose cries still echo through the rooms, Aunt Paloma’s unspoken suicide, and of course the death of Julia herself, who is believed to have thrown herself out of the window on purpose. But beyond these family tragedies, the yellow house on the hill acts as a centre of gravity for all the nation’s dead, whose ghosts Anaïs has been able to see and talk to ever since she was a child.

Through Julia, we learn that Anaïs has ‘something out of balance’ in her ‘relationship with pacha, with space and time.’ The house too, suffers from being ‘only precariously attached to the time and space in which it was built’. Its only living occupants are a two-headed cat named Inti-Killa (Sun-Moon) and a housekeeper and groundsman whose presences are so ghostly and unexplained that readers wonder whether they too might be dead. When Anaïs first arrives at the yellow house after seven years away in the UK, it is morning. She walks through a couple of rooms, their furniture neatly covered in dustsheets, and then out onto the patio, where she finds night has inexplicably fallen. When she leaves on an errand the next day the house appears intact, but on her return it is suddenly in disrepair, shutters hanging from their hinges and the garden overrun with weeds. While the novel’s narrative present appears to cover the nine-month period of Anaïs’s pregnancy, her movements through the house show us how time ‘bends like a corkscrew to meet itself’ over and over again. She opens and closes doors and the rooms shift and change from one era to the next, making her work of restoration a Sisyphean task. Mischievous ghosts whisper distractingly, and even her body becomes unstable – her hands turn to eggbeaters and her legs to broomsticks as she goes about domestic chores. Burdened, the house seems to flicker in and out of the present, a sign of history piling upon itself over and over again ‘until it cannot bear its own weight’.

Anaïs’s fate has been linked to that of the house ever since she was a child rendered mute by her ability to see what no one else could and so dismissed by adults as stupid or insane. What all her doctors and psychiatrists failed to identify was that young Anaïs was suffering a form of trauma on behalf of the Peruvian nation – a form of Andean soul-sickness only a shaman could identify and which only Santa Julia could help cure.

Alongside its commentary on Peru’s historically invisibilised populations, The Dust Never Settles offers a unique and vivid depiction of an unwanted pregnancy. Anaïs’s reluctance to become a mother implies a rejection of the English side of her family, and by extension of the European coloniser: of her archaeologist father who dipped in and out of Peru and of her mother’s life, and whose excavations helped catalyse a pachacuti – a cataclysmic overturning of space and time that brings a new era into being; and of her upper class fiancé who ‘has heard gold is good value in Peru’ and finds it sexy when she speaks Spanish in bed. In her distress, the foetus takes the shape of a little pink fish just visible in the corner of her eye; as the pregnancy progresses, it transforms into a jellyfish and eventually a giant crustacean, a ‘hybrid monster’ whose constant, morphing presence is a sign of Anaïs’s alienation from both the child and her own body – her sense of the wrongness of this bi-cultural child-to-be.

As she spends longer in the house, her belly growing larger, it becomes harder and harder to separate Anaïs from her surroundings. Gripped by cravings, she begins to consume fragments of the house (rusty nails, chips of plaster, sawdust) until she expects to see its beams and walls show up on her ultrasound scan. Her fusion with the house as a symbol of the nation continues to grow until, in a long dreamlike sequence towards the end of the novel, she finds that the veins on her palms ‘flowed with copper, with silver and gold’, and then her waters break, the earth begins to quake, and the house collapses around her as she gives birth.

The Dust Never Settles is a work of Latin American magic realism written in an English populated by other languages. Just look at how its chapter names trip from ‘One’ to ‘Dos’ to ‘Three’, and so on. Anaïs, who has spent her twenties in the UK, is fluent in both English and Spanish and can sing songs in Quechua, though she does not know what they mean. Her Spanglish is criticised by her well-to-do, Americanised cousins as too correct, not natural – best leave it to the gringos, they tell her. Yet the fluid way she combines languages makes Lickorish Quinn’s style lively and supple, and she is skilled at using Spanish to provide covert humour for those in the know: there is, for instance, an extraordinary vision of the invading Catholics through the eyes of fifteenth century Indigenous Americans, including a memorable description of the Pope as ‘a man called Stone who is also called Potato whose head is kept on a chair in a place called Roma but who also wants to place his chair here in the Tawantinsuyu’). And for those not so in the know, there is a glossary of terms in Spanish and Quechua at the back of the book, alongside a very welcome list of characters (both living and dead) and a convoluted family tree.

Perhaps my favourite thing about this book is that it is unexpectedly very funny – its big, dark themes are balanced with a lightness entirely suited to its literary heritage: there is a scene in the multifaith room at Heathrow Terminal 5 with its ‘pay as you go carousel of divinities’ during which Anaïs accidentally makes the mother of God cry; a drug-induced painting of the biblical flood on the ceiling of the Echeverría ballroom that depicts a jumble of ‘turtle-skunks and lion-toads marching towards the ark’, with ‘leg indistinguishable from pincer indistinguishable from penis’; and finally, a climactic scene in which Anaïs strides, heavily pregnant, around a crumbling house, naked and dripping from the bath, shouting at her fiancé in a blind rage and dogged by a giant pink lobster.

The aimlessness of Anaïs’s part of the narrative, and the way she and her family members never quite come into focus, is offset by the skilful way Lickorish Quinn uses Julia to loop from one ghost to the next, each of their stories as concise as it is powerful. The Dust Never Settles shows impressive research skills coupled with a boundless imagination and a gift for juggling narrative perspectives, qualities that make me look forward eagerly to whatever this author writes next.

Ellen Jones is a literary translator, editor, and writer based in Mexico City. She holds a doctorate from Queen Mary University of London. Her recent translations from Spanish include Iván de la Nuez’s Cubanthropy (forthcoming), Ave Barrera’s The Forgery (2022, co-translated with Robin Myers), Bruno Lloret’s Nancy (2020) and Rodrigo Fuentes’s Trout, Belly Up (2019). Her monograph Literature in Motion: Translating Multilingualism Across the Americas is published by Columbia University Press (2022).

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