It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as surprising – in a good way – as ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. I’m an AndOtherStories subscriber, so I had a copy, but I’d forgotten about it until a friend of mine - another AndOtherStories writer, Deborah Levy - told me how much she’d enjoyed the book. From the very first page of this elegant and economical, accessible but at the same time experimental, novel, I read with amazement. It’s an astonishing and hugely enjoyable piece of writing.
I’m currently five weeks into teaching a six-month long weekly UEA/Guardian Masterclass, ‘How to Tell a Story’. One of the things that comes up regularly in class is the business of point of view in creative writing, and how difficult it can be to get right. Beginner writers often shift point of view without quite realising - telling most of a story from one character’s third person point of view, then slipping, without intending to, into another character’s point of view for just a few lines. We’ve had a few pieces produced using a child’s point of view and here the problem often is that the writer assigns the child opinions, turns of phrase, or emotional responses, that are too adult or, indeed, too authorial. ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ suffers from none of this. Early in the story, the seven-year-old narrator assigns himself a set of grown-up words he’s learned - including ‘sordid’, ‘devastating’, and ‘pathetic’ - and proceeds to use these, relentlessly, to describe almost everything. But more than that, it’s the slow accumulation of detail about the extraordinary and, indeed, horrifying world of the Mexican drug baron hideaway, ‘our palace’, where the narrator lives, that really gives this book its unusual power.
It’s a short novel - less than seventy pages - translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, and this extreme brevity is part of what makes the novel work so well. For anyone interested in point of view in creative writing, as well as how to execute an extremely controlled, darkly funny, experiment in narrative, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ is itself - dare I say it? - a masterclass.