“I lay in the darkness, the song of Bogotá humming several stories below the window.”
Patricia Engel’s Vida is a collection of nine short stories centred around the Sabina, daughter of Colombian parents, who grows up in the suburbs of New Jersey. Each chapter reads like a self-contained story, capturing a particular phase or moment in Sabina’s life. Although they are not chronological, they are ordered in a fairly linear way. In the first story, ‘Lucho’, Sabina is a teenager. After her uncle is convicted of murder Sabina becomes persona non grata. As the only non-white kid in her neighbourhood Sabina is already made to feel isolated from others. Lucho, a boy slightly older than she is, strikes up a friendship with her. He has a bit of ‘bad boy’ reputation, he cares little for rules, doesn’t wash much, wears tatty clothes. His home life is less than peachy, and perhaps this is why they feel drawn to each other. ‘Lucho’ was my favourite story (a 5 star read). Engel’s understated prose perfectly conveys Sabina’s teenage languor, her sense of otherness, and her attraction to Lucho.
The other stories were far less striking. Two of them seem writing exercises (one is narrated in the 2nd person, while in other one Sabina refers to her current lover as ‘you’) as they seemed to emphasise style over substance. Most of the stories follow Sabina as she moves from city to city, from lover to lover. All these boyfriends and sexual partners blurred together, their personalities somewhat insipid. I wish that this collection would have focused more on Sabina’s family. Sadly, the only two stories that seem to feature her parents are the first and last ones in the collection.
Still, with the exception of those ‘you’ chapters, I really liked Engel’s style and her wry humour. It is simultaneously muted and touching. And even in the more forgettable stories there were moments that spoke to me (it may be something Sabina is thinking about or a conversation she’s having with someone else). Engel also manages to incorporate quite a few topics throughout the course of her stories. Rather than providing hurried assessments or observations, she tends to centre an entire chapter to a certain event/theme: from eating disorders and domestic abuse to 9/11. While not overly sentimental, she showcases empathy in the way she treats her characters and their behaviours/experiences.
If you enjoyed Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta, chances are you will also like this.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars