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Natural History

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  282 ratings  ·  67 reviews
From Carlos Fonseca comes a dazzling, kaleidoscopic epic of art, politics, and hidden realities

Just before the dawn of the new millennium, a curator at a New Jersey museum of natural history receives an unusual invitation from a celebrated fashion designer. She shares the curator's fascination with the hidden forms of the animal kingdom--with camouflage and subterfuge--and
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published July 14th 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published September 6th 2017)
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Average rating 3.88  · 
Rating details
 ·  282 ratings  ·  67 reviews

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Katia N
Aug 28, 2020 rated it really liked it

Initial impression:

A Russian doll of a novel that builds its body by slow accretion of stories, facts and theories layer by layer, not unlike in geology. Intellectually satisfying and wide in scope. I really enjoyed it.

A longer take:

“A novel of multiple layers, novels that could be read the passage of time on the surface of rocks”. 

I discovered Carlos Fonseca and this particular book when the one of my good GR friends from the US sent me a link to the article in LARB, the interview with the auth
John Banks
Dec 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Fonseca's Natural History is just brilliant. In terms of structure, characters, writing style, themes it all comes together cleverly. This is the novel I've read this year that impressed me with its imaginative commitment to reconsidering and disrupting what the novel can be and do. In this way it very much hews to Latin American novelistic traditions.

It has so many different narrative layers nested within and in tension with each other as it explores themes of celebrity, artistic culture and v
Gumble's Yard
Nov 28, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2020
Sometimes we play several games and other times only one, eternal and multiple, which makes me think the old man is inventing games within the larger match, private rules within a universe in miniature that he himself built.

Without stopping the game ..[he] .. tells me a story that grows windingly: a long, thin story of detours and journeys …. He tells me the story in fragments, as if we were looking at photographs.

The first-person narrator of the book (well all except a rather weak third-pe
Paul Fulcher
Aug 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020, bernhardesque
Natural History is Megan McDowell's translation of Carlos Fonseca's Museo Animal, the change in title in the English version a colloborative decision (see below).

The publisher's blurb that this is "a dazzling, kaleidoscopic epic of art, politics, and hidden realities" is no exaggeration, and this is one of my favourite novels of 2020 and surely a frontrunner for the 2021 Best Translated Book Award.

The novel begins with our narrator, an art curator, being contacted out of the blue by a fashion de
Aug 22, 2020 rated it it was ok
Natural History ambitions to develop some edge, bringing into play notions of propaganda theory, cultism, mimetism, art history, politics and more. From the very beginning, the novel also sets its hopes on a dreamy atmosphere, an ever so slight impression of unreality. Whether it succeeds is visibly not mine to determine, seeing the number of raving reviews already online by the time an English translation was made available. But my own appreciation of the book remains tepid, in comparison. Oh, ...more
Oct 14, 2020 rated it it was ok
The thematic scope of this work is almost overwhelming. There are so many topics one could touch on here: camouflage, insomnia, the quincunx, photography and negatives, the boundaries between art and the real world, history as a farce, fire, fanaticism, and so much more. And I appreciated the artistic reach that Fonseca was going for here. I appreciated his prose. But, most likely due to my failure to grasp the implications of all of these themes, I can't say I enjoyed the book itself. The story ...more
Joseph Schreiber
Aug 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This complex, multi-layered novel is, in many ways, an exploration of the means of becoming invisible—of what drives people, like animals, to find ways to disappear.
This book defies an easy review but here is my best effort:
Oct 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating and absorbing book to read. It is so broad in scope that it feels at the end as though it has been a lot longer than its 320 pages. That’s not to say it drags at all - it’s more a comment about the journey on which the book takes you.

The Goodreads blurb here does an excellent job of describing the book, so I am not going to provide any details of plot. I wrote some notes about the kinds of things that happen only to discover it was all covered in the existing description (w
Kasa Cotugno
Apr 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: arc, subj-art, loc-usa-nyc
A very slippery novel to categorize, this was perfect reading while under quarantine. There was so much lush imagery, so well described, and so much foggy, middle-of-the-night atmosphere. Our narrator receives a nighttime summons from a famous designer who wants to collaborate on a project, using his expertise as a natural museum curator for her collection employing patterns found in nature, camouflage. From this incident springs a quest for truth, an examination into what is the true meaning of ...more
switterbug (Betsey)
It starts with a Latin American curator of a New Jersey history museum, and a celebrated fashion designer who approaches him to collaborate on a project. The problem is that the project itself isn’t clear. They meet many times and engage in philosophical discussions of, of course art. Photography, design, science, religion, and other topics are folded and refolded into their verbal excursions. When she dies, she leaves him an assortment of letters, photos, and the archive of their arrested iproj ...more
Aug 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This has been one of my favorite reads this year and I hope to see some award nominations in translated fiction. First, my compliments to Carlos Fonseca and Megan Mcdowell, translator, for the wonderful novel in translation. When I finished the novel, I leaned back in my chair and just reflected on how far of a journey the author had taken me with this novel both in settings and ideas. The term "rabbit hole," came to mind, not the negative connotation that comes from clicking link after link on ...more
Anna A.
Feb 12, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: m-fractions
A Tragic Farce

A recurrent question posed in this ambitious novel on the role and possibilities of art is: Tragedy or farce? Seeing its scope and richness of detail, the same might be asked about the book itself. Fortunately, Fonseca doesn’t seem to take his own inquiries as seriously as Siri Hustvedt does in her own explorations of art. But a more relevant comparison is with Paul Auster: Natural History is a hunt for an elusive artist with the added benefits of self-discovery, much like The Book
J.E Somocurcio
Sep 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
“Carlos Fonseca’s moving second novel, Natural History, begins with the nighttime arrival of a package containing three manila envelopes, alongside the obituary relating the death of a celebrated fashion designer: “Giovanna Luxembourg, Designer, Dead at 40.” Within them the novel’s protagonist, a curator in a natural history museum, encounters the archive of his collaboration with Giovanna, alongside whom he had previously worked in the elaboration of a foiled exhibition. The envelopes contain p ...more
Nov 04, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: novels
Perhaps I shouldn’t rate a book I don’t want to finish. Others are giving it 5 stars, while I just didn’t connect with it. The narrator works in an art museum, which was enough to lure me in. But then it became way too talky, hearing the events in the narrator’s head rather than seeing them play out. When I got to part II, it picked up a bit, then bored me again. After 130 pages (over a third), I abandoned hope. There were passages here and there that I enjoyed, especially his observations about ...more
Sep 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a wild ride and up until the last chapter I was enthralled. The last chapter ruined The Who,e captivating story for me. Maybe just me, but everything about the story was an absolutely addictive read up until the end. Such is life.

Tragedy or farce?
Julie Butcher
Aug 11, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: netgalley-books
Readers who enjoy getting lost in an adventure of art and philosophy and all sorts of untied threads - and some spectacularly poetic language thrown in - will enjoy this intellectual romp.

Me? Not so much. I found it difficult to follow, to be honest. I tried. And I loved the language, wish I could read it in the original.

Thanks, NetGalley, for the opportunity to read this interesting novel in exchange for a frank opinion.
MacKenzie Alexander
Aug 30, 2020 rated it it was ok
Foncesca’s writing is so lovely. Meditative and pulling. However, I felt completely frustrated the whole time. The book is so steeped in mystery that I had trouble placing any footing until I was 100 pages in. The characters were too distant to feel any connection to. Details repeated and circled that didn’t feel worth repeating when I was thirsty for other information.
Aug 11, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is a book, whether I like it or not, I will think about for a long time. I didn’t want to finish it. But I couldn’t help it. I felt compelled to finish it before I judged it. I couldn’t decide if it was about to be brilliant or was most definitely obscure on purpose to be clever. It was like the half dreams I have myself, as an insomniac. Too many characters. Too much detail. Too many diversions which may or may not be important. A storyline that feels stuck quite often. I’m sure the author ...more
Kathleen Gray
Jul 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
I honestly don't know how to describe this. It's the meshed stories of a museum curator obsessed with the quincunx, who connects with Giovanna a fashion designer to put on an exhibit but it never happens. When she dies, he receives her archive which leads to Yoav, an Israeli photographer. This does not have a straight line narrative but it does have gorgeous language. I admit to almost giving up in part because it felt overwhelming in spots but it's a worthy read. Thanks to the publisher for the ...more
James Beggarly
Oct 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. This novel is dizzying in the different worlds and stories it explores. A curator of a museum of natural history in New Jersey is approached by a famous fashion designer for a possible collaboration. The meetings lead no where, but open the curator up to looking at the world differently. Seven years later, the designer has passed away and leaves the curator several envelopes that lead him on a sort of epic discovery about her family, a famous photograph ...more
Dec 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
Tragedy or farce? What a wonderfully strange book this was. Stories that stop and start and get picked up again later or just end without any real kind of ending; obsessions from photography to art to quincunxes to solving a mystery. Art and politics, disappearance and camouflage. Masks and hidden identities. Is it true as one character suggests that "the only true artwork is disappearance itself?" The end of the book leaves more questions than answers. This book that requires close attention an ...more
Jan 27, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
What a strange, fascinating book. The first and third parts appear to be in the first person, with the middle section being more of a third person narrative. I didn't enjoy that as much. The narrator clearly has an obsessive personality as he seems to fixate on random things and then try to make sense out of them. A woman reading a newspaper in a Lebanese bar. A painting by Edward Hopper (whose work I love though these works weren't familiar to me) And most peculiar perhaps the geometric pattern ...more
Rick Elinson
Nov 03, 2020 rated it it was ok
"Natural History " was compelling but ultimately disappointing. The first part of the story is concerned with an odd relationship between a curator of a local museum and a prominent designer. A 5 dot pattern, the quincunx, is somehow involved. That set the stage for an intriguing middle part where the odd lives of the father and mother of the designer raise questions about the relationship between art and the law, and perhaps is somehow connected to the designer's fate and the quincunx. This see ...more
Patrick King
Dec 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
This is that kind of book that tests and then rewards you. It begins in a way that makes you feel you missed something and then proceeds with an oneiric logic that finally accrues meaning and then... you’re off! I’m glad I kept with it, I almost abandoned it twice just because it seemed like I was missing something, but when I finally surrendered to the book’s flow I got something that was almost Bolaño-esque in its examination of history and the placement of its characters in reality. It ended ...more
Heather Marie
Aug 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
As deeply complex and riveting as The Overstory. The basic plot is obscured in layers of dramatic allusions to fire, art, camouflage, and revolution. The story is revealed in pieces of beautiful narrative, descriptions of art work, photography, and mysterious envelopes delivered to the primary narrator after the death of a fashion designer. Readers will contemplate deep human questions for weeks and months after finishing. Thank you to NetGalley for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest ...more
Sep 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
A challenging read. Beautifully written, evocative images and wonderfully imagined scenes and settings. However, the characterizations are dense without an easy entry point for empathizing with their plights.

Really a novel of idea on art, literature , politics, religion. It flows well as a read, but the scope is immense and it is difficult to keep track of the work as a whole.

I tried to find a way into this narrative, but the abundance of ideas and the lack of sympathetic characters hindered my
Oct 13, 2020 rated it it was ok
I was not the reader for this book. I was drawn to the cover art when I picked this up with no prior knowledge at the library. The writing was beautiful, but the story was too out there for me. What was I assume meant to be deep was just kind of rambling to me. I found bits of inspiration surrounded by a whole lot of confusion. Mostly, I found the artists in this book to be selfish, bored people who used art as an excuse from doing anything useful to anyone besides themselves. I could go on abou ...more
Jenni Link
Oct 09, 2020 rated it it was ok
"Tragedy, or farce?" the characters keep asking, as they explore transgressive art and ways of living. I almost gave up on this book a number of times, and finally abandoned it with 50 or so pages to go. I couldn't take the pretentiousness, the hard-boiled and sexist narration (in which every male character is a heavy drinker who's nonchalantly fucking "a blonde" or "an Italian" in the evenings as an afterthought, and every female character is, of course, beautiful), the justification of inhuman ...more
Aug 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, 2020
Dense and hypnotic with lots of avant garde and conceptual art history, philosophy, and law. Reminds me of a summer school art history lecture I can't understand, but at least it's dark and air conditioned. ...more
Oct 12, 2020 rated it it was ok

Like a shaggy dog story. Not my kind of thing. I mean, what's the point?
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Carlos Fonseca Suárez was born in San José, Costa Rica in 1987, and spent half of his childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico. In 2016, he was named one of the twenty best Latin American writers born in the 1980s at the Guadalajara Book Fair, and in 2017 he was included in the Bogotá39 list of the best Latin American writers under forty. He is the author of the novels Colonel Lágrimas (Restless B ...more

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