This review was originally published in The Washington Post.
The opening pages of Daniel Galera’s “Blood-Drenched Beard,” are indeed blood-drenched. Moments before committing suicide, the narrator’s father reveals a family secret: The narrator’s grandfather was brutally murdered.
In the wake of that revelation and his father’s suicide, the narrator of this atmospheric novel moves to Garopaba, a small fishing village on the south coast of Brazil, where his grandfather once lived. In a house he rents by the beach, the narrator spends his days bathing in the sea, teaching swimming and discussing the Buddhist concept of reincarnation with other drifters while seeking answers to the questions surrounding his grandfather’s death.
Galera is one of Brazil’s most celebrated young writers, and “Blood-Drenched Beard,” winner of the 2013 São Paulo Literature Prize, is his first novel to be translated into English. A story about family and fate, it also grapples with the question of what mysteries should be left alone.
The unnamed narrator has prosopagnosia, a rare neurological condition that makes it difficult to remember faces. As he begins his life in this languid but suspicious town, the condition handicaps him socially and causes several unfriendly confrontations, including run-ins with his grandfather’s contemporaries. The condition, however, doesn’t make him oblivious to his surroundings. On the beach, the ocean “breathes in his ear,” and during the winter, the beach’s “coppery sands are warm and still scarred from the last influx of tourists.” As for the women he meets, “he has learned to see [beauty] everywhere.” When falling for a bright and slightly lost woman he encounters later in the story, he describes “this feeling a little like a light depression that makes everything that doesn’t have to do with the woman he is hugging unimportant.”
In the second half of the book, the narrative moves into less realistic territory as he discovers the bizarre truth about his grandfather. Eventually, the narrator’s confrontation with a former girlfriend explores philosophical questions about free will.
As echoes of his past finally collide with his grandfather’s, however, the narrator must make up his own mind about how he lives. Even in the remote beaches of southern Brazil, blood ties can still be washed away.