The Bullet Swallower (Elizabeth Gonzalez James) – book review

Elizabeth Gonzalez James has crafted a fascinating historical tale out of stories from her own ancestry. The Bullet Swallower follows different generations of the Sonoro family linked across time from outlaw Antonio in the late nineteenth century to movie star Jaime in the mid-1960s. And in doing so asks the question as to whether family traits, particularly negative ones are inherited. And in this day and age of genetic searches, how much of one person’s life or personality can be attributed to their heritage.

The Bullet Swallower opens with a callous cold open in the Mexican border town of Dorado in which cruel Alferez Sonoro abuses the local indigenous population in order to mine gold for him and suffers accordingly. Years later, in 1895 his grandson Antonio goes with his brother to Texas to rob a train, an action which will lead him to become the most wanted outlaw in the State. In 1964, Antonio’s grandson Jaime Sonoro, a movie star known for his comic Westerns, is given a strange ancient book about the dark history of his family. In both time periods, a strange shadowy figure known as Remedio is paying particular attention to the Sonoro family.

There is plenty going on in The Bullet Swallower which even its author describes as a “magical realism Western about a Mexican bandito and his movie-star grandson”. But she succeeds in bringing these disparate elements together. The Bullet Swallower is never less than fascinating. Antonio’s tale of striving as he is both pursued and pursues the Texas Rangers on whom he seeks revenge, is atmospheric, violent and always engaging.

This is then juxtaposed against a world where those exploits have become the fodder of the media but also considers how the descendants of not only Antonio but Alferez and generations of Sonoros might reconcile with and move on from a violent family history. And given its subject matter The Bullet Swallower also surfaces issues surrounding colonialism, racism, misplaced frontier justice.

The Bullet Swallower is fascinating historical fiction with a little bit of magical realism thrown in to strongly tie its two main threads together. The book works just as a western revenge tale with a framing of that tale against the world of the 1960s. But the deeper philosophical considerations, the way it deals with larger issues and its emotional beats take The Bullet Swallower to another level.

Robert Goodman
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed

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