We can’t forget, though, when we read a novel like STRAYS OF RIO. With the storyteller’s gift of creating a world in our heads, Edith Parzefall lures us to Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro’s most famous sector of a picture-postcard city. Beyond the dramatic topography of Cristo Redentor, the famed statue of Jesus on a hilltop, Parzefall shows us the slum-draped hills rising up from beach-front homes of the rich. From the first sentence, we are engaged: “Lisa Kerry lay on the roof of an abandoned factory and watched the curved bridge through the scope of her sniper rifle.” The scene unfolds with cool precision. After years of bottling her pain and rage, a young woman pulls the trigger and feels release. She’s confident she’ll get away with assassinating a man who has harmed so many. After all, “Accidents happened. People died. Particularly in Rio de Janeiro.”
Who is Lisa Kerry? Who did she kill,and why?
Her story unfolds through the eyes of homeless orphans who find shelter with this unexpected, gun-toting, cynical yet compassionate bookstore owner. A host of intensely moving characters reveal who Lisa is, even as they themselves become a revelation to the reader. Tony, an American businessman, falls in love with Lisa in spite of all her efforts to keep him away from a dangerous woman like her. Max, a young drug lord, dreams of a better future for his little brother. He looms larger than life to the mob of boys who fear and respect him. Who but Max could rise naked from his bed to face a firing squad and take them down before they can get him? When he coaches the boys on how to steal cars, the dialogue is hilarious but poignant. Max is the result of his circumstances, but he tries to do the right thing whenever he can. The boys steal calculators to do their school work, but Max is proud to have them in school at all. Thanks to Lisa, “His little brother might lead a different life. Maybe even a long life. For a moment he imagined Tatu at the age of seventy with a bunch of grandchildren around him, telling stories about their granduncle Max.” Every telling detail about Max, every action, every word from Tatu and Luiz, illustrate why Parzefall says STRAYS OF RIO is ‘the most important book I ever wrote and closest to my heart.”
Jango, Lisa’s mentor and savior, reveals a more civilized facet of how Rio residents adapt to their circumstances. He doesn’t try to stop Lisa, though, when she plots to do what the police won’t do. As she tells Tony on the hilltop of Cristo Redentor, she carries a gun to save her life or end it. And her sites are fixed on the wealthy locals who’d love to round up Rio’s strays and exterminate them. It’s unfathomable that the real-life counterparts of these villains kill children like Luiz, Tatu, Gordinho, Ubaldo and Rena. It’s even more shocking that the police turn a blind eye to this sort of street-cleaning.
We can ignore news stories of the poverty, suffering and justice that happens in real life to people we never see, but there is no setting aside the STRAYS OF RIO. Even if you never read thrillers (I usually don’t), even if you oppose armed citizens and vigilante justice, you are not likely to feel comfortable judging others if you read this absorbing, hard-hitting novel.