Review: Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

This book is a gem: small and lovely. Down the Rabbit Hole first came to my attention from the Guardian first book award longlist. It was selected as a nominee by readers. That alone piqued my interest. Unfortunately, in searching online in August (to be fair, I was looking to pre-order, since it officially debuted in September), I couldn’t find a way to get the book to the United States. Offered by a new, British publisher, I was unable to get it from Amazon or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter. At the moment, the U.S. Amazon site has several used copies from independent sellers available.

Long story short, I waited until I arrived in London to buy the book. In fact, the first bookstore I stopped in (Waterstone’s) didn’t carry the book, so I bought it at Blackwell’s in Oxford. A kind employee eagerly struck up a conversation upon seeing it in my purchase pile.

The book is one of my greatest British buys.

Down the Rabbit Hole tells the story of Tochtli, the son of a Mexican drug lord. The boy is “precocious,” isolated, and despite the opulence surrounding him, wants only a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. We follow Tochtli as life at the palace with his father, who he calls by his first name, Yolcaut, faces danger from both outsiders and law enforcement. Along with his tutor, Mazatzin, father and son travel to Liberia to search for a new pet for their zoo.

At just 70 pages, the book easily qualifies as a novella by length. Nevertheless, it seems to me a complete story; I have no qualms instead referring to it as a novel. Originally written in Spanish, Down the Rabbit Hole was translated by Rosalind Harvey. Linguistically, the novel is stunning. I’m looking forward to (hopefully) getting my hands on a Spanish-language version in a month. I expect to find that Harvey’s translation is exquisite.

Down the Rabbit Hole is beautifully written, paying great attention to character. Villalobos masterfully portrays Tochtli as both informed beyond his years and completely naive. In the same moments that Tochtli’s naivity shines through, the reader understands precisely what has happened. Tochtli’s lack of understanding elucidates events for the reader. His quirks and precociousness make him wonderfully endearing. His explications are heart-rending.

If you have a chance to get a copy of this book, please do. I doubt you’ll regret it. If it proves as difficult to find in the United States as it was for me last year, let me know, and I would be glad to send some copies back on my next trip to England.

As a post script, I am fascinated by Down the Rabbit Hole‘s British publisher, And Other Stories, which operates partially on a subscription basis. I will likely be purchasing a subscription for myself.

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