BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times July 25-31, 2007
by Philip K. Jason
You might have known her as Nancy R. Holtzman, part of the musical ensemble that played Southwest Florida venues as Celestial Harp & Flute since moving here in 2001, when the flute half of the team needed to attend to aging parents. Now, Nancy R. Koerner is making her reputation as the author of the life-based novel called “Belize Survivor: Darker Side of Paradise.” The novel has three centers of interest: the effect of the 1970s counterculture on an adventurous young woman, the natural marvels of a relatively unknown Central American country, and the psychology of abuse.
Koerner wrote the story from 1991 through 1995, then found a trade publisher who went out of business before bringing out the book. For a long time she shelved the project. Life, including a major accident, got in the way. But some ten years after putting it aside she revived it, further revised it, and has now made it available through lulu.com and also through standard and online booksellers.
“Belize Survivor” follows the adventures of an idealist young woman, Alexis Dubois, who is far less worldly and far less informed that she believes. Influenced by the 1960s and 1970s interest in communal living, back-to-nature lifestyles, and other anti-establishment fashions, Alexis travels the counterculture capitals and by-ways, slowly maturing without losing her sense of adventure and her desire for personal freedom and fulfillment. The first third of the novel is a wonderfully evocative tour of the places and passions of the flower children, including Key West and Northern California.
Alexis goes to Belize seeking Eden, a utopian lifestyle, but she finds instead the darker side of Paradise: earthquake, flood, fire, hurricane – and most of all the darker side of human nature embodied in a brutal husband, Max Lord. The seeds of this character’s decline into a sadistic abuser are not clearly perceived by Alexis, who seems to be avoiding facing up to what is obvious to the reader. But once she and her husband are in Belize, where Alexis is isolated and helpless, things begin to unravel.
When Koerner (and her surrogate, Alexis) first went to Belize some thirty years ago, it was largely unknown and unspoiled. Much of that primitive, unspoiled beauty is captured in Koerner’s evocative descriptions. Indeed, evocation of place through vivid imagery and cultural atmosphere is one of the book’s major strengths. Another is the careful building and maintaining of suspense. There is always a reason to keep turning the pages.
In writing the novel, Koerner tapped into the submerged emotions of her own experiences as an abuse victim. She came to realize that she had not fully addressed the issues, which she is now doing under professional guidance.
The teller of an intimate story, Koerner felt that there were aspects of it that she could not render effectively in the first person. It needed the distancing and relative objectivity of the third person perspective. The third person approach also enabled her to better render the secondary characters.
One of the problems with the choice is that Koerner succumbs to the temptation to go too far with one secondary character. Koerner’s extended treatment of Max Lord’s South African upbringing, interesting in itself, takes readers away from Alexis too long and makes too obvious the psychological seeds of later complications. Such a digression would be unlikely to happen in a first person narration. But this is a minor quibble.
As one might imagine, Alexis wishes to escape the tortures of abuse. Complicating her decision is the growing shadow of self-doubt and her sense of responsibility to the two children she and Max have brought into the world. How Alexis handles these issues, which I won’t give away, lends compelling complication to the latter third of the novel.
About the book as the source for further projects, Koerner writes, “a New York producer has picked me up, and we’re already engaged in doing a documentary. The purpose of this film is to 1) promote a great vicarious adventure to the aging-flower-children-baby-boomers, 2) to expose and therefore further the righteous cause against domestic violence, both national and international, and 3) garner interest with big investors to launch a full-length Hollywood film or a TV series based on the book.”
Because the twenty-year span of the story contains many, many short episodes, the producer sees the possibility of a long-term, ongoing series like “Lost.”
Whatever its future in other media, “Belize Survivor: Darker Side of Paradise” is a remarkable first novel both in style and substance.
Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.