South of the Border

by Marlis Wesseler
ISBN: 1550502980

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A Review of: South of the Border
by Cindy MacKenzie

Marlis Wesseler's second novel, South of the Border (after Elvis Unplugged), takes us back to the hippie era of the '60s and '70s when two Canadian friends, Arlene and Sheila, decide to travel to Mexico. Far from their native Saskatchewan, they can behave with the insouciant abandon that young tourists often adopt. In hot pursuit of one of the most vaunted ideals of the era, "Experience", the young women make reckless and often dangerous decisions about arranging their accommodations, hitchhiking and engaging in first-time sexual encounters.
The novel opens in the town of Palenque where Arlene receives the shocking news of Sheila, her traveling companion. Sheila has disappeared. Her probable death strategically and dramatically draws the reader into a story that belongs to a genre that is part mystery, part adventure. In the subsequent chapters, Wesseler's plot flashes back to events "some weeks earlier" to tantalize us with flashes of foreshadowing. But in Part Two, Sheila makes a surprising reappearance which, to my reading, seems to undermine all the effort Wesseler makes to create suspense in Part One. Moreover, Arlene is annoyed more than relieved, confiding later to her friend, "I was mad as hell at you. I felt like strangling you but couldn't think of a good reason for being so angry, so I stifled it. It sounds awful, but part of me was even disappointed you weren't dead, since I'd already gone to all the trouble of coming to terms with it." Even Arlene's reaction, "an ambiguous expression" does not seem plausible for a number of obvious reasons. Part Three moves us rather hastily into the future where Arlene, now married to her first sexual partner, Murdoch, returns to Palenque with him and their son. Since Arlene seemed so detached and casual about this first relationship, I found it hard to believe that she ends up married to Murdoch. The manipulation of time in the novel needs more adept handling as the transitions seem implausible and somewhat underdeveloped. Nevertheless, it would appear that Wesseler's intention is to introduce the sobering subject of death into what would otherwise be a predictable account of the adventures of two young women in Mexico at the outset of the novel. By doing so, she creates ample room for the protagonist's growth during her adventures "south of the border down Mexico way."
Wesseler has a good sense for dialogue, so that the voice of each character is authentic, natural, and convincing. Some of the characters' inner thoughts-often about sex-are particularly true to the era and to the young women's age. The character of Arlene is well-developed and interesting, and carries the most meaningful baggage in the novel. Nevertheless, sometimes I found myself wondering what exactly Wesseler meant to make her thematic center. Perhaps if the title had been more indicative, and the plot more developed, Wessler's purpose might have been clearer. Near the end of the novel, Arlene reflects on her friendship with Sheila, noting that Sheila was always first, and now with her death, first again "over yet another border." Yet, if the image of the border is significant, somehow Wesseler has not quite secured its thematic priority in the novel. Despite the book's weaknesses, this is a charming story that has moments of insight and depth to stir the reader's thoughts and feelings.

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