Usually when reviewing a novel, you must be careful not to give away too much plot. But in the case of Victoria Shorr’s “Backlands,” there’s no such danger: Shorr herself reveals the bare bones of the story in the first few pages. Put simply, “Backlands” is the fictionalized account of a real-life one-eyed bandit called Lampião and his lover, Maria Bonita — famous Brazilian outlaws who took from the rich and gave to the poor. From the early 1920s to his capture in 1938, Lampião and his gang controlled much of the Sertão, a huge and dusty swath of land in the northeast of the country, “almost the size of Spain.” More than once, they were cornered but managed to escape. For a long time, Lampião seemed invincible and his life, as Shorr puts it, “was a tango, full of beauty and danger, mixed.”
The novel’s heroine, Maria Bonita, grows up hearing the tales and singing the folk songs about this legendary bandit and his companions. Married off to the local shoemaker when she is just 16, she chafes at domestic life with an old man who seems more interested in having a maid than a wife. For six long years, Maria scrubs his floors and cooks his meals; her husband never touches her. But when the bandits arrive in their village, she impulsively joins them. In her new life with him, Lampião warns, she might be shot and may never sleep in a bed again. She could die young. But he will also teach her how to make love.
“Backlands” isn’t a plot-driven novel with twists and thrills at every corner. Instead of a racy “Bonnie and Clyde,” something more subtle is being attempted here. Shorr’s narrative loops back and forth effortlessly in time, meandering from the early days of Lampião’s life as a bandit to his capture. The account of his betrayal is followed by an earlier episode, a description of Maria Bonita’s pregnancy. One passage featuring Lampião’s final pursuers, hiding in the darkness preparing to attack, precedes a section about the devastating droughts his grandmother witnessed as a child.
Woven into the novel is the story of the Sertão and its people: the indigenous nomadic Indians who knew how to live off this unforgiving yet enthralling land; the early Portuguese settlers who carved the dry plains into ranches. The soil doesn’t yield enough for all, but this rough terrain breeds strong, fierce men and women who love the fact that their land “wouldn’t be tamed, couldn’t be trusted.” “Let the dandies stroll around their plazas in town,” say the inhabitants of the Sertão, people who prefer to “stand with their guns and wait for rain.”
Shorr’s language is often as stark as this landscape. Her strong voice, devoid of frills, conveys a determined sense of place and emotion. Consider, for example, the scene in which Maria Bonita and Lampião leave their baby with foster parents: “They said goodbye and walked away, back to their old life, free again. Fine. Done. Over. But milk was dripping from her rock-hard breasts, and that’s when she and Lampião started fighting.” There’s not a single superfluous word, yet this passage is filled with Maria Bonita’s pain and evocative of what lies ahead.
From the beginning, Shorr’s readers know the bandits’ tale will come to an inevitable conclusion. Tender, almost languid, but deeply satisfyingly paced, “Backlands” is less a tale of adventure than an exploration of love and loyalty, of the relationship between a people and their land.
By Victoria Shorr
302 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $25.95.