Reviewed by Sarah Sorensen
Tin House Books 240 pp.
Courtney Maum has created a fresh new Bildungsroman powered by a fourteen-year-old narrator, Lara, whose life is in a state of flux. At the onset of WWII, Lara is a reluctant member of her mother’s makeshift art colony in Mexico. Although her mother, Leonora, is an American, she begins gathering Germans artists together in 1937 in order to protect them from the impending war by bringing them to Mexico. Leonora wants them to enjoy a fanciful and self-indulgent life of art.
The artists, beleaguered by their own basic self-care, have a host of Mexican servants. When some of the artists complain that they are not so delicate as to need to be waited upon, the servants are summarily fired, only to be re-hired shortly thereafter in response to chaotic messes and a lack of meals. Lara sensitively notes the servants’ names and details about their lives, while her mother “romantically” names all of the men “Edwardito” [sic] and the women, “Rosa.” Much of the artists’ time is devoted to idle play and self-aggrandizing talk of art.
The notable exception is Jack, the German artist who lives like a “real Mexican” and has his own home. No one realizes that he is still creating art, now in the form of sculptures, except for Lara. Jack’s work used to be more avant garde, part of the Dada movement. Now, his work is less edgy and more honest. Although the other artists dote on him, he is decidedly an outsider now. Jack is also the one who recognizes that Lara is still a child in need of an education and of protection. Lara cannot help but to develop a crush on him, the one adult who is not too self-absorbed to actually pay attention to her life.
With the authenticity of Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, and the erudite culture of Lily Tuck’s The Double Life of Liliane, Maum has created a rare jewel. Loosely modelling its characters after actual artists and reflecting subtly on the ways in which privilege, particularly racial privilege, has historically left our purveyors of art oblivious to anyone outside of themselves, Costalegre is a gift. It is not just another fictional book set in WWII, an area bursting at the seams with lackluster novels romanticizing a period of genocide. In the interview included at the end of the novel, Maum elaborates on how she created characters that loosely resemble famous figures. Leonora and Lara are a nod to Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen, while the artists Leonora collects are more of a blending of popular surrealists. Only Ferdinand Cheval, the mailman who built a castle from pebbles, appears by name.
Lara spends her days journaling about her life and sketching the plants and animals of Mexico. She wonders if she will continue to paint and write as an adult, or if she is merely mimicking her mother and her environment. She ponders, “What if I held everything inside of me? What if you couldn’t tell which way my tracks went?” In an environment that offers almost no privacy, Lara both longs to recede from view and wants to be noticed. The book is her most intimate space and she fills it with her ruminations interspersed with her sketches of animals and of the plants that she is studying. These sketches are reproduced in the book.
It is, in so many ways, a novel about waiting. Lara waits to become an adult. The artists wait for the boat of their artwork to arrive in Mexico from Germany. They wait to feel inspired. Time is at once abundant, and yet, as concentration camp survivor, Konrad, is infinitely aware, terrifyingly brief. Told in short bursts, yet at a slow pace, Maum works deeply in character development. She lets her reader see the frivolity of characters like Leonora, contrasted with the gravity of the very self-contained Konrad, whom Leonora has married. Lara comments, “So I have a new father. His name is Konrad Beck and he hates Mumma more than Papa did. He is tall and narrow but quite tan for a German. He was in an internment camp so he is thin and angry. Mum saved him by marrying him—he is the toast of all the town!” In five brief sentences, readers are quickly drawn into the characters’ relationships. We can already begin to see the resentful dynamics of a marriage between a privileged woman of means and an internment camp survivor. We learn about Lara as well. Her exclamation that “he [Konrad] is the toast of all the town” reminds us that she is still a child, unaware of the dangers of the war.
However, Lara takes in Konrad’s deep sadness, his understanding that “it wasn’t as liberating as the artists had thought it would be, to experience real fear.” This is the wisdom of the book, the observation that there is a general naivete among the artists whose work is thought to be a reflection of culture, in direct opposition to real experiences and real deprivation.
While the time period of Costalegre is WWII, the issues it raises are still relevant. Artists who succeed today are often those gifted with enough financial and social privileges to use connections to get attention for their work. Artists often require a lot of resources to be successful and sell their work. Visual artists require supplies, but artists of all kinds benefit greatly from advanced education, workshopping, mentorship, etc. Artists also require free time to create their work. Free time is a luxury. How can a person afford artmaking when they have young children, but no childcare? How can they work multiple jobs, cook, clean, and otherwise survive if time is spent in pursuit of a goal with no promised income? Art and artmaking becomes a luxury reserved for the privileged. For outsiders without resources, a career in the arts can seem unrelatable and bourgeois. There is much to admire in Maum’s well-crafted work, but perhaps nothing as dire or needed as this reflection.
Sarah Sorensen has been published over forty times in numerous small presses since 2009. Her most recent work was featured in 5×5 and Timber Journal. She has work forthcoming from Flock. Sarah has her MA in English from Central Michigan University and is currently pursuing her Master of Library and Information Sciences at Wayne State University. She would like to work as a public librarian during the day and write novels by night.