Sandra Benitez has created in The Weight of All Things, her third and latest novel, a seamless story about the early-'80s civil war in El Salvador as seen through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy, Nicolas.
We know, based on the book's introductory historical note, that Nicolas is going to find himself involved in a terrible adventure. The riveting opening scene -- in which Nicolas's mother is killed while protecting him -- confirms this.
At the same time, by hinting throughout the book that Nicolas will be OK, Benitez claims a license to be relentless in her descriptions of the atrocities of war. They provide a necessary contrast to Nicolas's innocence, allowing Benitez to avoid a sentimentality that would undermine everything she is trying to accomplish.
Benitez's ability to avoid so many potential literary pitfalls remains the art of this book. Centering the story on a child could have trivialized the events; it does not. It would have been easy to screw up the character of Nicolas, making him too knowing -- and thus unrealistic -- or cloyingly cute, but his decisions and observations ring true. Additionally, Benitez plays with elements of Magical Realism, which thoroughly work in the story without detracting from its dignity.
The story is a personal odyssey for Nicolas, told in smooth and flowing language, simple yet lyrical; in this way, we are subtly taught history and politics. Through several journeys, Nicolas comes into contact with both the guerillas and the military. Though she seems sympathetic to the guerillas, Benitez reveals the true nature of her opinion with lines like: "It was either the army or the guerillas. In the end, they're all the same"
Benitez does not preach, but instead lets the story tell itself, with no gratuitous detail:
"(Nicolas) chose the seat deliberately; he wished to ride beside an old woman who was slumped next to the window. ...Nicolas thought it was wise to seek out such old ones, even though hardly a word might pass between them. Young people, specifically young men, provided dangerous company. Too frequently they were dragged from buses, from eating places, even from the sanctity of their own dwellings, by the soldiers of el Ejercito Nacional, the National Army ... Other times, the threat came from paramilitary squads. ... And over all was the abiding presence of the National Police, the Treasury Police, and the National Guard, all with rounded steel helmets and chin straps, all armed with rifles and perplexing hatred for their own brothers.
In addition to being an anti-war memorial, this book shows how little we adults have over children in understanding such meaningless activities. War is revealed to be even more pointless, senseless and destructive than we thought; Nicolas emerges as the equivalent of the child-hero from The Emperor's New Clothes.
Unflinching but not overwhelming, this novel is a pleasure to read. Though not flawless, The Weight of All Things is a great story; it is well-written, imaginative, risky, and has an important message. Sandra Benitez is a writer fully in control of her craft.