In Paradise Misplaced: Mexican Eden Trilogy, Book I, Sylvia Montgomery Shaw invites readers to a world of Mexican upper class etiquette, power, intrigue, romance, passion, murder, and yearning for forgiveness. In the book’s opening pages, the reclusive patriarch of the Nyman family, General Lucio Nyman Berquist, is found murdered. From then on, readers will find it impossible to set the book aside, through the trial of the general’s youngest priest-son, Samuel, to the entrance of the dashing Captain Benjamin Nyman Vizcarra—Samuel’s twin—and his incarceration in the premeditated murder of their father. The pace at which the events accelerate and the way the attractive characters present themselves—the three sons of the deceased, the estranged widow, the only daughter, all impressive in their nobility and grandeur—grab readers’ attention and curiosity. When Benjamin attacks his beautiful American wife, Isabel, in his cell for cheating on him and his family, readers will be eager to learn about the relationship of the “Gringo” with the Nyman family, the wealthiest in Mexico, in the first decade of the twentieth century.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Benjamin, after his incarceration, is brutally beaten and crippled and left as a life-long invalid in his cell. Only the power and wealth of his family assure him royal treatment with the finest linens and delivery of expensive food. Gradually, as his nerves revive and his friendship with El Brujo, a silent Shaman, gains strength, he commits himself, as an act of soul-searching, to write a book about his family, his estate, and his Isabel. He calls the manuscript “Paradise Misplaced.”
The second part consists mainly of sketches of people in Benjamin’s life: his parents, his siblings, his special relationship with his twin Samuel and with Isabel, his elopement with her, his house, San Serafin, and his childhood. The first person narrative voice is seldom interrupted by scenes of Benjamin and El Brujo taking their morning runs through the prison courtyard and their emerging plan of escape. Sylvia Shaw’s skill in manipulating voices is evident in the distinct tones she uses in the two voices. When Benjamin narrates his own life—his frustration with Samuel’s decision to join the clergy; his compassion for Isabel, the beautiful granddaughter of an American painter, whom his brother Rodolfo wanted to marry; his confession of love to Isabel and their elopement; his determination to join the revolutionaries; and the apparent betrayal of Isabel—there is a deep sense of nostalgia, honor, love, compassion, and respect for beauty, mingled with youthful impulsiveness, honest affection for family members, and blatant arrogance about his lineage. But the third person narrative voice, when it interjects to remind readers of Benjamin’s location in the setting of the novel, is quick to point out when the time is up for Benjamin to finish his manuscript and mail it before his premeditated date of escape with El Brujo.
The contrast between Benjamin’s life in 1911, amidst the splendor of his family’s wealth and his brief love affair, and his life in 1912, confined to a prison cell where he recovers from nervous and physical damage, reminds readers of the Fall in Eden and of the loss of paradise. His exercise in soul-searching gives him an opportunity to reflect on his life—wealth, happiness, arrogance, humiliation, loneliness, remorse—and Shaw takes an opportunity to remind her readers that good moments are fleeting and can be lost by a single stroke of bad luck. Shaw’s language is very lucid, crisp, and engaging; her scenes are tightly-knit; her characters are as well-done as they should be in the first book in a series; and her plot thickens to such a point that readers will wait eagerly for Book II of the trilogy.