“I’ve worn a mask most of my life. Most people do. As a little girl, I covered my face with my hands, figuring if I couldn’t see my father, he couldn’t see me. When this didn’t work, I hid behind Halloween masks: clowns and witches and Ronald McDonald. Years later, when I went to Mexico, I understood just how far a mask can take you. In the dusty streets, villagers turned themselves into jaguars, hyenas, the devil himself. For years, I thought wearing a mask was a way to start over, become someone new. Now I know better. A mask doesn’t change who you are; it lets you become the person you’ve always been, the person you paper over out of habit or timidity or fear. Some people – people like me – have to try on a lot of faces before they find one that fits.”
The Aztecs were one of the most advanced civilisations in the history, but they also had a reputation for violence. Human sacrifice, death masks and sun worship are how many people remember them, and Dancing With The Tiger by Lili Wright puts Aztec and Mexican mythology at the forefront. When a looter digs up the death mask of Montezuma, it sets off a chain reaction that sees drug lords, crooked art dealers and archaeologists all vying for the same prize. At the heart of the story is a woman called Anna who believes the mask of Montezuma can help her family find redemption, but she has to beat everyone else to get to it in time.
As the daughter of an art collector, Anna is looking to get the mask for her father so she can wipe away the shame of a book that was published with incorrect facts. After being cheated on by her fiancé, Anna decides to go to Mexico to get the mask and damn the consequences. Anna is a complicated protagonist, wracked with self-loathing and believing she could outsmart people who move in dangerous circles. She teams up with a Mexican artist, Salvador Flores, to help her locate the mask, though she initially lies about her true intentions. A budding romance develops between them, with Wright painting it as a sensuous, gradual affair that sees Anna and Flores take away the masks they wear and become more vulnerable with each other as time goes on.
The narrative is broken up into different perspectives, with Anna’s story entwined with a meth-addicted digger called Christopher Maddox, a drug kingpin, Reyes and a gardener, Hugo. All of them want the Montezuma mask for different reasons. The perspective I found the most interesting beyond Anna’s was Maddox. The looter’s drug addiction is revealed in depth, though he becomes more self-aware over the course of the novel, showing a lot of character development.
Mexico is as much a character as anyone else, and Wright is skilled at creating a vivid landscape of sweltering cities, mythological festivals and violent backstreets. Some readers might find the level of brutality within the novel excessive, but I found it matched the subject matter. I found the Aztec history angle to be the most intriguing part and it made me want to plan a future trip to Mexico.
Dancing With The Tiger is a fast-paced novel that combines the seedy underbelly of the art world with Aztec mythology for an entertaining story. You can buy it now on Amazon.