Six years ago, I was living in Lima, Peru with my fiancé (now husband). He’s Peruvian, and in addition to spending nearly a year living in his country, getting to know his family, I also wanted to learn more about Peru through books. One of the newest novels I’d found online was Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. It wasn’t available in English in Lima at the time, but I knew eventually I’d get it.
Fast forward to 2020: We live in the US now, and my husband sometimes misses his home country. He’s an avid reader (in part thanks to me), and recently asked me to find him a book set in Lima. That’s how I rediscovered Chasing the Sun and knew it’d be the perfect gift. After my husband read and loved it – and urged me to read it soon! – I decided it was time to finally settle in with this novel.
Chasing the Sun takes us to Lima, Peru in the middle of 1992. Andres Jimenez and his wife Marabela are having marital issues; she even tried to leave him a few months ago, but soon returned home. But one day, Andres asks her to run an errand while he finishes up at work; when he gets home, she’s gone. Though he at first worries that she’s left him again – maybe this time for good – he soon learns that she’s been kidnapped and is being held for an impossibly high ransom.
From here, the countdown is on as Andres tries to secure the money and get the help he needs to return Marabela safely home. He tries to shield his kids from the truth, but he also begins to understand just how much he and his wife have lost over the years, little by little. Things get murkier as we unravel Andres and Marabela’s history, from family drama to the consequences their relationship had on a woman they were once close with.
Chasing the Sun feels like a high-stakes thriller in some ways, but moreover, it is an intimate look at a marriage crumbling apart.
From the very first pages, Chasing the Sun sucked me in, engrossing me in its story and returning me to the heart of Lima.
It’s not too often that I get to read a book set in a place I know so well. Though I haven’t lived in Lima since 2015, this novel took me right back to its bustling streets. It felt like I was home again: I know Avenida Benavides; I recognize the houses secured by tall concrete walls. Throughout the book, Natalia Sylvester brings in so many Peruvian foods and drinks I love – ceviche, chicha, Inka Kola, causa – and uses distinctly Peruvian phrases. Beyond the little things that situate us in Lima, Chasing the Sun also highlights a difficult time in Peru’s history.
In 1992, my husband would have been 9, just a year older than Andres and Marabela’s youngest child. He’s told me about the bombs that went off regularly during his childhood, about the frequent kidnappings and the terrorism and the curfews. He’s told me about Peru’s politics and Alberto Fujimori’s problematic presidency. But this is the first time I’ve been immersed in this time through literature.
Chasing the Sun takes us to these terrifying times, diving into a family that’s just well-off enough to become a target for kidnappers. It jumps right into the action, starting the very evening when Marabela goes missing. From the beginning, the novel’s writing is so sharp and visceral. Instead of feeling heavy and draining, the book starts off with suspense and tension, feeling more like a thriller. It’s a page-turner, pulling you ever forward as Andres works with the kidnapper and makes some incredibly tough decisions.
At first, we get breaks from the action as Andres’s mind wanders to his memories – both good and bad – of his past 20 years with Marabela. These sojourns back in time start to become more prominent, coloring the present.
Eventually, Chasing the Sun moves away from the thriller pace and settles into a close look at troubled relationships. It becomes weightier and more heartbreaking as we pick apart Andres and Marabela’s past and their failing relationship. But theirs isn’t the only relationship in need of mending; Andres must also patch things up with his mother and with the woman he left behind, Elena.
Natalia Sylvester doesn’t flinch away from the painful subjects of this novel. Readers get a fair sense of the abuse Elena and Marabela both endured while being held captive. It’s not much on-page violence, but we do get raw looks at the effects: the physical bruises and scars, but also the mental trauma. Indeed, Chasing the Sun goes deep into the psychological aftermath, the lingering fear, the difficulty adjusting back to normal life. In Elena’s case, we see how the trauma can lead to seeking professional help.
Each of the characters feels real and nuanced, making the novel all the more affecting.
Chasing the Sun is an often painful, but wholly impactful book. It illuminates a beautiful city during a harsh time, and it examines close relationships and all the cracks that slowly break them apart. This is a stunning debut, and a novel that’s worth reading.
I plan to read more from Natalia Sylvester. Her recently published third book, Running, is already high on my list, and I’ll round it out with her middle book, Everyone Knows You Go Home. Stay tuned for those reviews!
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