The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty

  • By Vendela Vida
  • Ecco
  • 213 pp.
  • Reviewed by Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski
  • June 25, 2015

Trapped in a foreign country with no proof of identity, a young woman is swept into a series of adventures.

Vendela Vida is the author of three previous novels that feature, in her words, “women on personal odysseys trying to come to terms with some recent psychological or physical blow.” Each is set in an exotic locale: the Philippines, Lapland, and Turkey. In her most recent novel, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, the setting is different, but the central theme is much the same.

A young woman, who is never named, boards a plane bound for Casablanca. The flight has already “muted the horror of the last two months,” but even in the neutral territory of the airplane, she spots a familiar-looking woman, realizes she knows her, and her “heart races.” With this portentous foreshadowing, we’re off and running through the international hotels, squares, and bazaars of the Moroccan city.

As the young woman registers at her hotel, her backpack is stolen, which triggers the novel’s action. All her identifying information — passport, driver’s license, credit cards, laptop — are gone. An encounter with the Casablanca police chief hints at conspiracy: are the police in cahoots with the security staff at the hotel? The police return a different backpack in what seems to be an attempt to wash their hands of yet another petty crime against a tourist.

When the young woman seeks refuge at the American embassy, she is rebuffed by a coldly bureaucratic functionary. To make matters worse, the official paper documenting her meeting with the police chief has vanished. With no proof of her own identity, she is forced to assume several false ones, and in the process is swept into a series of adventures that depend a bit too heavily on a jet-lagged protagonist and several credulity-stretching coincidences.

By chance, a movie crew staying at the hotel spots the woman as a double for the American actress starring in the film. Once hired as her stand-in, she joins the crew on set at a mosque, a wealthy Moroccan’s private mansion, and Rick’s Café, among other photogenic locales.

As the aliases pile up, snippets of the heroine’s fraught past are revealed. The reader may feel a certain distance from her pain, however, as the narrative is told in the third person, as in, “When you find your seat, you glance at the businessman sitting next to you and decide he’s almost handsome.” This stylistic quirk further blurs the protagonist’s identity, fusing it with the reader’s own.

Another curious choice is the labeling of secondary characters: “the pale practical secretary,” “the tattooed man,” or “the famous American actress.” In this surreal world, identity is fluid, names are no longer necessary, and everyone is playing a part. Nonetheless, the action is swift, and many of the protagonist’s trenchant observations are entertaining. For example: “Witnessing someone else’s troubles right now is a very welcome distraction,” and “half of parenting is a performance for others.”

Vida’s prose is smooth and spare with occasional flashes that delight. “You cannot sleep. Silence takes on its own sound.” Moroccan money smells “like desert heat.” In the northern city of Meknes, “The sun stretches out its rays long and wide, as though it’s been trapped in tight quarters and is finally free to expand.”

The tension of this nightmarish situation — to be unmoored in a foreign place with no proof of identity and only your wits to save you — keeps the reader turning pages. Part psychological thriller, part travelogue, this slim novel is a perfect beach read, one you might well breeze through in a single long, lazy afternoon.

Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski is the author of a novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, which was a semi-finalist in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. When not working on a new novel, she blogs about art, design, and dance. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband, cat, and growing collection of mid-century ashtrays.

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