Don't be fooled by the summary of the book posted on its GR page. It oversimplifies this novel, which isn't so much about an attempt to prove a decades-old murder, as it is an exploration of the tapestry of memories, stories, speculations, and images that make up the narratives of our lives. Ribeiro wisely pays equal attention to the silences in these stories, the shadows that obscure our motivations from ourselves as well as from others.
As a historian, I am drawn to novels that are built on a framework of fragmented clues from the past, so this novel was perfect for me. It opens in Brazil as Fernando, our first narrator, meets Andrea, whom he knew years before in LA when Andrea was appearing in Fernando's only film. He was captivated by her during the filming, so he is surprised and delighted to find her at her antiques store, the Night Stand. As he and Andrea rekindle their relationship, they are drawn together by Andrea's stories of her great-aunt Guilhermina, who provided the funding for the store. Andrea, surprising herself, begins to tell Fernando a haunting story of Guilhermina's great secret: she killed her much-older husband by locking him in a wine cellar until he died of starvation. Guilhermina explains that she was motivated by a desire for retribution for her husband's raping her on their wedding night when she was 14 years old.
These aspects of Guilhermina's past are not spoilers, but instead provide the framework for the novel. Fernando becomes captivated by Guilhermina's story, and urges Andrea to share with him all the details of Guilhermina's life that she can remember. The two visit the farm where Guilhermina died, and pore over a hatbox containing letters, photographs, and other clues to Guilhermina's past. In the second part of the novel, Andrea tells her side of the story, including her uneasy reactions to Fernando's stated desire to write a screenplay based on Guilhermina's life. She doubts Fernando's ability to do Guilhermina's story justice. As I read further, I could understand her position. Guilhermina's story could easily be simplified as a Brazilian Gothic tale, but that would do an injustice to Guilhermina, who emerges from the pages of this novel as a vibrant, sensual woman, captivating men and women with her long red hair, her brilliant eyes, and especially her open-armed approach to life. Much of the novel focuses on Guilhermina's travels in pre-WWII Europe as a young widow, where she made an indelible impression of a wide-ranging group of characters, from an aristocratic Italian family, to a procuress and nightclub owner, to a Parisian pianist, to a Danish balloonist.
The novel concludes in a final section that shows Fernando, in Paris for six weeks, seeking out people who can help him uncover more secrets of Guilhermina's life. In this section, as he does throughout the novel, Ribeiro presents a complex mosaic of memories and stories that cannot present a simplistic, unified image of Guilhermina. In death as in life, she would not be pinned down. And to me, that's one of the joys of this novel -- Ribeiro's willingness to present Guilhermina in all her complexity, not as evil or as innocent, but as a woman who refused to be limited by her birth and circumstances. Ribeiro also presents a complex view of memories and time and identity, in which Guilhermina emerges not as a portrait but as a kaleidoscope, with colors and light refracting from different people's views of her -- as well as of her own views of herself.