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Sarah Bird: 'The Flamenco Academy'

by Veronique de Turenne
Jul 19, 2006 (Day to Day)

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The pulse and passion of flamenco take center stage in Sarah Bird's ambitious sixth novel. It's a tale of love and longing and transformation, one the gypsies who created the dance form centuries ago would surely understand.

With her pale skin, pale hair and the clenched fist of a last name, Cindy Rae Hrncir couldn't be further from flamenco's fiery ideal. She's a sheltered math nerd whose moves to Albuquerque in her junior year of high schools. Her father gets cancer, her mother goes nuts and Cindy Rae, now utterly alone, leads us into the frenzied heart of The Flamenco Academy.

Bird has done her research, and everything from the folklore to the footwork of flamenco is on display here. It's against this backdrop that lonely Cindy Rae falls obsessively in love with Tomas Montenegro. He's a gorgeous guitarist whose physical beauty is exceeded only — and just barely — by his artistry. For Rae (her character drops the "Cindy" after a few chapters) the difference between Tomas and ordinary boys is a revelation:

Where they were pink and embryonic, he was brown and fully formed. His black hair, brows, the black lashes shadowing his cheeks had an etched certainty missing in the tentative pastel fuzziness of the boys I knew.

Rae shares a romantic night with Tomas and her twin obsessions are born. She's got to have him, and in order to snare him she'll transform herself into the impossible — a blond, blue-eyed Texan flamenca of Czech descent. Wasting no time, she enrolls in the Flamenco Academy.

It's obvious Bird loves New Mexico and the dance form she's placed at the heart of her book. There's something of Rae's obsessive compulsive nature in the way Bird revisits and retells parts of her story, always describing flamenco at fever pitch. It's as though she can't trust herself to explain the art and grace and fire of it — and Bird is pretty sure we'll never understand. Everything is seen at eye level, moment by moment as it happens to Rae, a linear telling that robs the book of dramatic rhythm.

It's all the more frustrating then Bird takes a break from the baroque language with which she's freighted her story and zings us with observations so wry and right, she snaps us back to attention. Here she is, describing an aging flamenco guitarist:

The crowd of hardcore aficionados pounded their palms together for Diego. Nearly eighty, he padded slowly to the straight-back chair where his instrument waited. His double-knit pants, pulled up a little too high, cradled the low-slung lobes of his old-man's buttocks. He took his pants, hiking them up still farther, exposing garters holding up black socks.

It's moments like this that lead you to the heart of the tale where Rae and Tomas finally unite and their destiny plays out. The central tenet of flamenco is "give me the truth," and in the climax of her story, Bird obeys.

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