Night Prayers is a novel that is a bit hard to pin down. There are multiple voices telling their stories (some, in part, only loosely parts of the story as a whole). One is the twenty-seven-year-old Colombian, Manuel Manrique, who sets the story into motion, getting himself arrested in Bangkok for smuggling drugs. Another is the dominant narrator, looking back at those events ("a strange time in my life"), as he worked at the time for the Colombian diplomatic service (after twenty-four years in Europe), newly stationed in New Delhi. The Consul (as others refer to him) is the one who tries to deal with Manuel's situation -- it falling on him because Colombia has no embassy in Thailand (and the consular offices who would usually handle such cases, in Kuala Lumpur, are currently without a consul).
Manuel tells his story to the Consul, beginning with his childhood and his not extremely supportive parents. Manuel took to reading and eventually went on to study philosophy. He even recognizes the Consul's name when they first meet -- and tells him:
"I haven't read your books," he said, "but let me say something that may surprise you. This isn't going to be a crime story, it's going to be a love story. I'll explain why later."
The love Manuel speaks of isn't romantic but familial: the one person he is devoted to above all other is his older sister, Juana. One day, several years earlier, she had simply disappeared -- and the reason for Manuel's presence in Bangkok is that her trail had led him there. Desperate to find her, he would do almost anything .....
Now Manuel is under pressure to plead guilty to the drug-smuggling charge -- or face the death penalty. But almost all that Manuel cares about is finding his sister -- and it is the Consul who then sets off on her trail in order to reunite the siblings and, perhaps, save Manuel.
The Consul does eventually find Juana, and she recounts her story to him, too, complementing and elaborating on Manuel's (and beyond, to the reasons for her disappearance, and her life since).
Manuel wasn't exactly right when he said this wouldn't be a crime story: it may not be one of the traditional sort, but it certainly has enough crime and thriller elements -- and along with various confessions, the Consul's far-ranging detective-work, and even political elements, works reasonably well as a modern international thriller.
While the Consul's role almost throughout is in his official capacity, working for the diplomatic service, his identity as an author -- published and apparently well-known -- figure significantly in the novel too, shaping it. It is very much a literary text, a look back by the Consul in an attempt to make a coherent whole out of past events, as he already suggests very early on:
The story I want to write, the one I'm now about to tell -- the one I'm remembering and putting into some kind of shape here in Bangkok -- happened at a strange time in my life.
The characters tend to be very well read -- including both Manuel and Juana, and especially the Consul. There's lots of name- and title-dropping -- helpful for a certain kind of atmosphere (if also a literary shortcut that can feel a bit too easy). The Consul also moves in literary circles, mentioning: "my friend Jorge Volpi", or spending a night on the town in Tokyo with Horacio Castellanos Moya, yet (probably for the best ...) Gamboa limits just how far down this road he's willing to go.
Between the straightforward counts, there are also brief chapters of 'Inter-Neta's Monologue', a much more stylized and fantastical literary spin on aspects of what has happened.
As if the far-ranging literary mentions weren't enough, Night Prayers also ranges geographically widely -- from Colombia to New Delhi, and Bangkok to Tehran to Tokyo. It makes for interesting contrasts, with a good deal that is finely observed, even as it is deceptively casually presented, right down to asides such as: "Tokyo is indeed the future, but only of Tokyo".
Gamboa's storytelling impresses, especially on that simplest level. The construct of the novel -- Manuel's story and then Juana's, as well as the overarching one of the Consul (which, in contrast to those of the siblings, doesn't reveal much about his past ...), as well as the 'Inter-Neta monologues -- doesn't work ideally: in particular, Manuel gets more or less lost in the shuffle, his fate unfolding and then decided pretty much off-screen for much of the novel. Surprisingly, the criminal/thriller elements are a bit of a drag to the novel, especially in their resolution, the pieces (regarding Manuel, at least) simply falling into place. And while the Consul's final explanation -- of where this has left him, of what he still hopes to do ("maybe in another book or in another city") -- is a nice touch, how he got there isn't entirely convincing.
Night Prayers is consistently enjoyable, a good, well-paced read, chapter by chapter and place to place, but it just feels a bit flat as a whole -- not quite convincingly enough pure quest-tale, which seems to be what Gamboa was going for.