By Simon Demetriou

Towards the end of The Cemetery of Untold Stories, Filomena, the great-souled and semi-tragic cemetery-keeper, says that ‘All stories are good stories if you find the right listener’. That an illiterate peasant woman is telling this to her nephew, a professor of literature, who ends up a novelist himself thanks to a story that only Filomena knows, is indicative of the way in which Alvarez’s novel insists that all voices have value, and that a good listener finds beauty in the story of everyone and everything. This is a novel that makes one want to write; it is a novel in love with stories and that love is infectious, irrepressible. But it is also a novel that makes one fear to write. Because as one of the best books I have read in recent years, it makes you realise how high the benchmark for great storytelling really is.

Alma Cruz, aka Scheherazade, is a Dominican-American literary celebrity at the tail-end of her career. Upon her father’s death, she inherits a plot of land in a questionable barrio of Santo Domingo, out by the city dump. Here, she builds a cemetery in which to lay to rest all the unfinished texts whose characters she has never been able to get out of her head, but also never been able to write down successfully. But these characters will not rest in peace. In particular, two incomplete novels – one about Alma’s father, a Dominican doctor exiled to the US, and one about Bienvenida Trujillo, second wife of the DR’s brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo – mysteriously refuse to burn. It is these two stories that unfold as the undying characters tell them, first to Filomena, then to each other, as the worlds of reality and ghost-narrative blend and overlap.

It all sounds terribly meta, doesn’t it? Stories that can’t be put into a novel telling themselves within the frame of another novel and then one of them being turned into a ‘real’ novel in the world of the novel itself. And it is. But Alvarez’s genius is such that the novel’s cleverness is so far subordinate to its moving, beautifully rendered storytelling, that it never obtrudes, never feels clever for its own sake. In the end, as we see Filomena reunited with her long-estranged sister, as we learn the painful secrets of Alma’s father which Alma herself never uncovers, as we try to understand how a kind and intelligent woman can obsessively love a brutal, unfeeling man, it is the emotional resonance of the novel that rings on after you regretfully put it aside. This is how all cleverness should be delivered. If only all writers were capable of it.