Lizzie, a British student, arrives in Vallerosa aiming to widen her horizons, intending to give to those judged less fortunate than herself by helping out in a hospital, orphanage or similar institution. What she finds is very different.
Run by an elected dictator, who inherited the job from his father, Vallerosa’s government seems entirely hung up mindless bureaucracy – a committee to decide the name of a committee or a meeting with the under-secretary to arrange a meeting with the Secretary.
Positions of power are inherited, women are scarce and the President himself is consumed by self-doubt. The country is neatly divided into those in government and those that are more working class – and the two groups really mix socially. But at the same time, everyone is educated, employed, healthy and generally happy.
Lizzie is initially at a loss as to what to do with her time. But she quickly learns that she can give seething back to this country, albeit not at all in the way she’d planned. Confusion over her identity pushes her straight into the heart of government, giving her a unique opportunity to see life from the viewpoint of the countries many dedicated officials. At the same time, she goes out of her way to speak to ordinary people. Initially, she sets out to find a way to fix the town clock, and in doing so, she may have the opportunity to bring the country even closer together.
At the same time, Vallerosa might also be able to give her something that she didn’t have before – a new sense of self-awareness and an appreciation for a simpler, more honest way of life.
The country Seni has created feels entirely real – down to every minute detail. I loved the rivalry and competition between the two bar owners for Lizzie’s custom during her stay. I also loved the role of the tea leaves that make up Vallerosa’s national drink and pride and joy.
She writes with a gentle mocking tone – the bureaucracy is sometimes verging on the ridiculous, and the complicated business of governing the country absurd. But as we read on, this unique style of writing really adds to the charm of the novel. It’s like we as readers are being included in an inside joke, encouraged to poke fun but in a good way.
The author obviously has some strong views – and she uses her writing as a foil to get these across. Sometimes this works perfectly, but occasionally I felt it slipped into caricature and clichés – such as with the two dastardly, capitalist Americans. It stopped them from feeling like real characters to me.
I admit that it took some getting used to. The first third of the book failed to grab me, and if I hadn’t been reading this as a book club choice, it might have fallen to the bottom of the pile. But once the story really kicked in, the pace picked up and I started to really enjoy it.