BOOK REVIEWS

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

“What was it about this country that kept everyone hostage to its fantasy?”

Infinite Country shares much in common with two of other novels by Patricia Engel, The Veins of the Ocean and Vida. While I do enjoy certain aspects of her storytelling—which at times reminds me of authors such as Alice Hoffman and Isabel Allende—I do think that her work is much too heavy on the telling. As with The Veins of the Ocean, this latest novel is very light on dialogues and mostly relies on recounting the various histories of various characters. Still, interspersed in their experiences are some lovely descriptions and observations. I particularly liked the role that myths play in the narrative.

“When the world was new, the creatures that ruled were the jaguar, the snake, and the condor.”

I loved the first chapter, which mostly focused on Talia, the youngest child of Elena and Mauro. Although she was born in America she was raised by her father and maternal grandmother in Bogotá. After an act of violence she is sent to a correctional facility run by nuns in the mountains of Colombia. Talia, however, is determined to leave as she has a flight to the U.S. to catch. As Talia journeys across Colombia, hitching rides here and there, readers learn of her parents first meeting and subsequent relationship. The two lived for awhile with Elena’s mother but after the birth of their first daughter they relocate to America. After they ‘overstay’ their tourist visa they are forced to accept unfair wages and live in precarious places. Throughout their relationship Mauro struggles with alcoholism and depression, which drives them apart.

“Emigration was a peeling away of the skin. An undoing. You wake each morning and forget where you are, who you are, and when the world outside shows you your reflection, it’s ugly and distorted; you’ve become a scorned, unwanted creature.”

Similarly to The Veins of the Ocean and Vida this novel shows the hard choices immigrant parents have to make: to live in a country which deems them ‘alien’ and in perpetual fear of being deported, or to return to their home country, knowing that there they will face a different struggle.
In the last section of the novel the narrative includes chapters from the first point of view (until then the novel was told through a 3rd pov), specifically those of Talia’s American-based siblings. These chapters did not add a lot to the narrative, and they didn’t make these characters as fleshed out as Talia. Although Elena and Mauro’s relationship and struggles are certainly poignant, that their stories were being ‘recounted’ in a rather passive way distanced me from them. The switch to a 1st person narration was somewhat jarring, and I did not care for the clichéd address to the reader (on the lines of: “You already know me. I’m the author of these pages”).
The storyline would have benefited from focusing more on Talia. Although at first it seems to be hinted that she will play a big role in the story, she is pushed to the sidelines.
While I appreciated the message of this novel, I was not as taken by its execution. If you enjoyed Crooked Hallelujah or you happen to have loved Engel’s previous work, you should definitely consider picking this one up.

“Leaving is a kind of death. You may find yourself with much less than you had before.”

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel

“I want to be forgotten. I want it to feel as if I’ve never existed. I want to be a stranger. Rootless.”

A few days before reading The Veins of the Ocean I read, and enjoyed reading, Patricia Engel’s Vida, a collection of short stories centred on a Colombian-American woman. I was intrigued by the premise of The Veins of the Ocean and the first chapters were deeply affecting. I was captivated by the understated lyricism of Engel’s prose, by Reina’s interiority and the reflections she makes by revisiting her past and her relationship with her difficult older brother.
After her brother is sentenced to death, Reina puts her life on hold. She works during the week and spends her weekends in a depressing motel close to Carlito’s prison. In spite of her brother’s heinous crime, Reina, unlike her mother, can’t cut him loose. During her visits, Carlito reveals to her the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement. After his death, Reina struggles to adjust to a life without him. She moves to a small community in Florida Keys and seems resigned to live a lonely existence until she comes across Nesto, an exiled Cuban who longs to be reunited with his children.
The narrative moves between past and present, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes a little more clumsily. As Reina tries to adapt to her new life, she’s forced to confront her own role in Carlito’s crime. As she reconciles herself with her own failures, and those of her loved ones, Reina finds the courage to truly live.
I loved the atmosphere, tone, and setting of this novel. The narrative had an almost lulling dreamlike quality that brought to mind the works of Ann Patchett. Reina too, could easily belong to a Patchett novel. Although she may appear to be a rather directionless individual, her sensitivity make her into an affecting character.
Sadly, I wasn’t all that enamoured with the men in this novel, in particular Reina’s love interest(s). Reina would often only belatedly introduce us to these characters, making their presence in the story feel rather sudden. These characters often are not given any direct dialogue, and their experiences and words are re-elaborated by Reina herself (she will say ‘he told me this’ or ‘he said this and that’). They often don’t appear in scenes as such, and Reina is merely thinking of what they told her. They felt kind of uninspired and forgettable. I also didn’t see the point in Dr. Joe. He has a very small role at the beginning of the novel, and yet Reina will often think back to his words in order to make sense of something (she will think ‘according to Dr. Joe Carlito did this because x’). And maybe it could have worked if his character had been a bit more fleshed out…but he had a hurried appearance which didn’t cast him in a very positive light.
Then we have Nesto…the main love interest. And I kind of hated him for 95% of the novel. He is condescending, quick to minimise Reina’s feelings or experiences (saying ‘you’re not Cuban, you grew up in America, you can’t understand’). He seems very uninterested in Reina’s painful past, flat out telling her that he doesn’t want to hear about it, and that for him she came into being that night they first met (“for me, you were born the day I met you. Nothing before that counts”). And yet he excepts her to listen to his own past, the difficulties he overcame, and his present struggles. The only times he didn’t make me roll my eyes, and want to strangle him, were when he spoke about the Orishas. His nuggets of wisdom however were banal at best: “To be human is to be imperfect”, the secret to life is “love”.
Later in the narrative he also tells Reina that she has “a debt to pay to Yemayá for your family”. Which, is king of crap thing to say. I just found him obnoxious and unsupportive.

What could have been a moving and incisive tale is let down by too much telling and not a lot of showing and by an extremely irritating love interest (curiously enough I found the love interests in Vida to be just as tiresome) who made me want to wish for a different ending for Reina (her happiness seems to completely hinge on their relationship…which yikes).

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Vida by Patricia Engel

“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

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