The Stone World by Joel Agee

Immediately following World War II, an intuitive boy from the U.S. in Mexico carefully observes his changing world in this scintillating work of literary fiction.

Following his memoirs (Twelve Years; In the House of My Fear) and translations, Joel Agee’s first novel, The Stone World, is a dreamy, haunting immersion in the mind of a child in a gravely serious adult world. The story spans mere months in the life of six-and-a-half-year-old Peter, who prefers to go by Pira, as his Mexican friends pronounce his name. (Pira wishes he was Mexican; he has learned that gringo is not a compliment.) This is a quietly profound study of boyhood, in some ways almost humdrum: Pira writes a poem, borrows a significant item from a parent and breaks it (and lies about it), falls out with a friend, learns about the world. But the backdrop is late-1940s Mexico, where Pira lives with his American mother and German communist “second father” (his biological father lives in New York), and they rub shoulders with a range of characters: American, Hungarian, Mexican, rich, poor, activists and organizers and artists, including Frida Kahlo.

Pira is prone to involved imaginings, including dreams but also waking visions, as when he lies on the cold stone floors of the family’s small patio and feels himself sinking into another world. There is a literal fever dream as well (brought on by a serious allergic reaction), but even the half-sleep of the afternoon siesta can transport the boy–a very serious thinker–into realms of fantasy, where he decides that a nearby decaying bull’s carcass is the famous bull that has just killed a beloved Spanish bullfighter. Through the eyes of this curious, philosophical, sensitive child, the whole world is fresh and new, colorful, beautiful and dangerous.

Joel Agee is the son of celebrated novelist James Agee, and Pira’s life resembles his creator’s, who likewise lived in Mexico with his mother and German stepfather in the late 1940s. The Stone World is concerned with relationships, interpersonal and political: Pira is friends with boys his own age, as well as his pet dog and parrot and the family’s cherished maid, Zita. The politics of his parents and their friends (with their talk of parties–but not in the usual sense) are initially boring to young Pira, but real-life risks and even arrests bring the issues home to him: “He didn’t understand, but there was an explanation.”

In the hands of such a skilled and nuanced writer, this material glistens and tilts with both beauty and menace. Pira is captivating, and The Stone World is completely absorbing. Readers should clear their calendars until the final page has been turned, and then leave time for the contemplation this novel deserves.


This review originally ran in the December 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 marbles.

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