Alejandro Zambra's first novel, Bonsai, brought the young Chilean poet international fame. It was followed by The Private Lives of Trees, which retained interest in the author. In this, his third and longest – but still very short – novel, translated by Megan McDowell, Zambra uses the ploy of describing the author at work on his new book which, needless to say, is the one we are reading. Zambra adopted similar metafictional devices in its two predecessors.
The new novel evokes a wry and somewhat precious romanticism, with the central love affair subject to the corrosive influences of memory. Zambra shifts between the narrative present and revisiting a comfortable upbringing during difficult times. The most powerful passage concerns a meeting with his parents during the 2010 Chilean elections, when the narrator's father comes out with the line his son most dreads hearing: "Pinochet was a dictator and all that, he killed some people, but at least back then there was order."
The most provocative idea in the book is the claim that the generation of Chileans born, like Zambra, in the years immediately following the coup of 1973 is composed of "secondary characters". Our young hero suffers a vague sense of guilt at having been felicitously spared a personal legacy from those years of torture, disappearances and exile.
But Zambra's narrator seems muddled as to what precisely his generation's anomie involves. He describes his peer group as: "deserters, I think. We've become war correspondents, tourists." This leaves the reader wondering, well, which are you exactly: a deserter, a war correspondent or a tourist? There is a hell of a difference, and the author's unwillingness to differentiate indicates either laziness or a lack of interest in his own thesis.
Zambra at his best offers an intimate recognition of his central characters, and he can evoke a setting succinctly. He works confidently within his preferred formula, but we can't escape the conclusion that Ways of Going Home is overly self-referential, and lacking depth or acuity. It is a readable but ultimately frustrating story aimed, like Bonsai, at a young adult market.