Summertime reading catch-up: Adelia Saunders’ ‘Indelible’

Don’t tell me not to judge a book by its cover. Book covers are meant to be judged. That is why people are paid to create them: to be judged. Presumably, book covers are meant to be judged favorably, either aesthetically or as a reflection of the book’s contents.

The cover of Indelible by Adelia Saunders is what first drew me to the book. It had the potential to be a little tawdry (a faceless woman’s bare neck, the title arching over her skin), but count me in. The premise of the book promised even more. Magdalena, since her childhood in Lithuania, has been able to read words and phrases, facts and secrets on bodies. Richard is in Paris, searching for information about his famous novelist mother whom he never knew. His son Neil is also in Paris, on a research trip about medieval pilgrimages organized by his university adviser. All three converge at one point or another.

The premise is where my excitement ended. The first thing I noticed about the novel is there was a weird emphasis on non-American accents. The two main American characters (Richard and Neil) are constantly commenting on how others speak—which vowels are elongated, or times when other characters drop articles and mispronounce words, indicating their foreign-ness. Their commentray continues through the entire 271 pages and kept jarring me out of the narrative; I kept wanting to put the book down.

The English major in me pipes up, suggesting that maybe these observations are supposed to parallel, or perhaps mimic, the ways in which Magdalena views the words and phrases on bodies—constantly talking about how the words are written, about languages she can’t recognize, the joys of discovering a person whose body is covered in Cyrillic—so she doesn’t have to know the secrets this person holds. But another part of me questions whether this mimicry is doing enough. Where is the pushback? Literature has seen characters discuss non-English accents for so long, consequently othering non-English speaking characters, so is Saunders doing anything more here? I don’t think so.

The timeline and organization of this novel were confusing. Each chapter is headed by the month and the location where the character is supposed to be. Yet within each chapter, the narrative rapidly shifts forward and backward in a way that made it hard to keep up with. I love nonlinear narrative as much as the next person, but I honestly could not piece together the story without taking notes.

Ultimately, I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters, and the relationships between them that were supposed to be driving the book seemed tenuous at best.

The actions that were supposed to drive the narrative didn’t seem to be all that powerful. I never felt particularly compelled to turn the page. And the one aspect that should have had enough magic—Magdalena seeing words on bodies—was never anything more than a point of characterization when it seemed like it was going to be a major part of the plot.

Unfortunately, despite the promising basis and intriguing cover, this book was a disappointment.