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"The Dissemblers" by Liza Campbell

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In “The Dissemblers” Liza Campbell offers a close portrait of young aspiring artist without a rudder and apparently without a compass. Ivy Wilkes, the first-person protagonist, wonders continuously about the meaning of her life, the direction it apparently isn’t taking, what mark she might leave on the world. Her friendship with Maya and the two Valdez cousins gets in the way of these potential achievements, especially when, after precious little soul-searching, she agrees to go along with an illegal money-making scheme Maya proposes.

The scheme makes use of Ivy’s artistic talent, and makes her regret her loss of innocence and her pure ambition. In fact, Ms. Campbell portrays in Ivy a shallow, vain, self-absorbed, and naïve young woman who by her own admission vacillates between arrogance and desperate inadequacy. She wants to be loved and admired, but has received very little training in how to give love or admiration to anyone else. In every particular part of her life, she makes a major mistake, fouling up each opportunity to play it straight. In every particular, she dissembles and takes the selfish way, just like all her “friends.”

“The Dissemblers” may not have attractive characters, but the writing certainly measures up. Characters’ motivations always ring true, and Ms. Campbell handles the New Mexico landscape and moods beautifully – her descriptions evoke New Mexico’s unique brand of emptiness very accurately. There could be no more appropriate setting for the dogged emptiness of Ivy’s soul. I say dogged emptiness, but the conclusion of the story includes Ivy’s first, tentative steps to resuming her passion for painting. But our author tempers even this quiet uptick in Ivy’s life: she realizes how easily she can lie to the authorities about the conspiracy.

Liza Campbell has produced an interesting study in flawed character and shady ambition. She paces the story perfectly as we follow Ivy’s anguished descent and subsequent rise. Again, the stark depictions of New Mexico’s broad-brush vacancy agree in tone and texture with the emptiness of the characters. Of all the things I admired about this novel, I rank this parallel as the topmost.
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