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: ★★★☆☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

As the title itself suggests this book is about undocumented Americans. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio never treats the people she is writing of as passive ‘subjects’, or worst still ‘objects’, her gaze is neither voyeuristic nor impersonal. She does not give the impression that she is filtering their experiences and stories, even if she admits early on that due to privacy she may or may not have altered names and specific/recognisable details. In the interactions she has with those who are undocumented she isn’t a stoic journalist or interviewer, she doesn’t only ask questions. She shares her own thoughts, feelings, and circumstances with them, and often seems to form a bond with them. Which is what sets apart The Undocumented Americans from other works that wish to elevate the voices of those who are so often silenced.

Villavicencio isn’t interested in relating stories of those deemed ‘exceptions’, as exceptionalism ignores narratives that are not deemed ‘extraordinary’. Throughout the course of 6 chapters, moving across America—Staten Island, Miami, Cleveland, Flint, New Haven—Villavicencio reveals the complex lives, identities, and histories of undocumented immigrants. The voices she ‘collects’ in these chapters belong to day labourers, housekeepers, family members who have been separated from their loved ones, those who have lost loved ones because they do not have medical insurance, those who have been or are still being affected by the Flint water crisis, and the first responders to 9/11.
The people Villavicencio connects with do not want our sympathy or pity. They share their experiences with her hoping perhaps that their stories will reach those in need, those who perhaps like them are being or have been exploited by a country that treats them as ‘illegal’ and ‘aliens’. Even in the UK there is this stereotype of immigrants as lazy when the exact opposite is true. Chances are they work harder and for much less than the ‘natives’, whilst being subjected to all sorts of injustices. Villavicencio challenges this view of immigrants as criminals, lazy, welfare cheats, ‘less than’. She also confronts the myth of the ‘American Dream’ as she comes across people who do nothing but work, yet, no matter their hard work they risk being deported or are forced to turn to ineffective herbal remedies in order to cure serious illnesses or health problems they probably have developed while working physically and emotionally draining jobs and/or in dangerous environments.

Villavicencio speaks frankly and readers will feel her anger and sadness. She confronts the realities of being an immigrant, of working unfathomable hours for little or no money, of being treated unfairly, of experiencing health issues and being unable to seek treatment. However sobering their stories are, the people she writes demonstrate commendable qualities. They are multi-faceted individuals and their stories will undoubtedly resonate with many.
Villavicencio is an empathetic writer, who shares her own experiences and feelings throughout the course of this work. While this is a read that will both incense and depress you, it will also (hopefully) make you want to do something about it.

Although I live outside of America, immigrants do not face an easier life here in Europe. There are “immigration removal centres” (who thought that the word ‘removal’ would be okay when speaking of HUMAN BEINGS?), governments which are willing to let people drown rather than reach their shores (and at times orchestrate these shipwrecks), collude with other governments in order to stop people from leaving their countries….the list of horrors go on. I urge you, if you are in a position to donate to charities such as ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’ (these are UK based) to do so.

The Undocumented Americans is a heart-breaking, urgent, thoughtful work. Villavicencio is a talented writer whose prose is both eloquent and raw. I will definitely read whatever she publishes next.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

On paper A Lover’s Discourse is the type of book that I generally like: we have an unmanned who recounts her relationship to her unmanned ‘lover’—a man she addresses as ‘you’. Our narrator met ‘you’ after moving from China to Britain in 2016. Recently orphaned and feeling somewhat alienated by her new environment the protagonist of A Lover’s Discourse enters into a relationship with a German-Australian man. They begin living together in a houseboat, but while ‘you’ finds freedom in this kind of ‘unmoored’ lifestyle, our narrator would much rather live in an actual house or apartment. While ‘you’ earns money as a landscaper, our protagonist works on her PhD.

The structure of this novel is what initially caught my attention. The narrative is comprised of a series of dialogues in which the protagonist and her partner discuss an array of subjects: British-related issues, love, sex, nationality, identity, landscaping, architecture…sadly their conversations aren’t particularly deep or compelling. Maybe I write this because I found both characters to be different shades of obnoxious: our mc isn’t particularly passionate or interested in anything. While I should have found her efforts to understand British customs and culture, as well as trying to master the English language, to be relatable, given that I am in a similar position, I disliked profoundly the way she was portrayed. She was acerbic nag. She makes generalisation after generalisation about other countries, her own country, and about men. Not only does she repeatedly use the word ‘peasants’ to refer to the residents of her hometown, but her tone, when using this word, left a lot to be desired. She comes out with obsolete comments that make me question why she would ever want to be in a relationship, especially with man, given that she considers sex to be a violent and invasive act that she doesn’t enjoy. Her navel-gazing was far from thought-provoking. She laments her boyfriend having to work, seeming to forget that he is their sole provider as she’s busy completing this PhD she doesn’t even particularly care for (she kind of forgets about her studies once she starts her relationship with ‘you’). Her PhD actually sounded quite interesting, and I wish that it had played more of a role in the narrative.
‘You’ is a condescending man who is kind of dull. He ‘explains’ things to our narrator, and he does so in an exceedingly donnish way.
Attempts are made to connect their ‘discourse’ to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and I wonder…why? These two characters didn’t strike me as the types who would care about Barthes’s writings.
Bland, uninspired, and repetitive, A Lover’s Discourse was a deeply disappointing read. Thankfully it was a relatively slim book.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua

Hua’s stories explore, however superficially, the experiences of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the United States: the generational and cultural differences between immigrant parents and their American-born children, the struggle to assimilate into a different country, especially one which will treat you as Other, the desire to adopt new customs vs. the pull towards traditions. These were all potentially interesting avenues, sadly, none of the stories delves deeply into them. Each story follows the same formula: we have a main character who is at a turning point, and they are forced to or decide to ‘deceive’ others or themselves. With one exception, they all commit some selfish or unscrupulous act. At times they do so because of monetary reasons (“VIP Tutoring”) or because they believe they have no other options (“Accepted”) or for some obscure reasons that I personally did not find all that convincing. They usually try to excuse their behaviour, but inevitably, they are exposed as ‘frauds’.
I didn’t like the fact that all of these stories unfold in the same way, so that within the very first pages I would guess the story’s inciting incident, trajectory, and conclusion. Perhaps I wouldn’t have minded as much if the characters had struck me as sympathetic or realistic, but for the most part they were rather one-dimensional, all a similar shade of self-deceiving and egotistic. Yet, even if I did not like them, I wasn’t gratified by their eventual comeuppance. The moralistic tone of these stories was really off-putting, and while I found “The Responsibility of Deceit” to be the most ‘decent’ story of the lot, I thoroughly disagree with the author’s equating a man’s closetedness to ‘deception’ (coming out can be dangerous, and chances are that it will make others treat you differently or even condemn you for your sexuality).
I wasn’t take by the author’s writing style, which relied on clichés such as “asking for an apology was easier than asking for permission”. Personally, I find descriptions such as “the air was muggy, swollen as a bruise” to be overdone.
While I’m sure that there is a reader for these type of stories, that reader is not me.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

While browsing a charity shop I picked up this collection of short stories. What drew me the most to Home Remedies was its cover (bright pink in my edition), and while I wasn’t expecting to like every single story, I hoped that I would find a few to be memorable. Sadly, none of the stories drew me in. Wang examines some serious—and potentially compelling—themes (generational differences, dislocation and deracination, familial expectations vs. personal identity) but her stories never led anywhere interesting, they meandered without focus, loosing themselves in details or exchanges that did not really contribute to the overall storyline, only to reach anticlimactic conclusions.

The collection is divided in three sections (‘Family’, ‘Love’, ‘Time & Space’), each containing 4 stories. One would think that these stories somehow focused on the topic of the section they are in, but they don’t. Take the story ‘The Strawberry Years’, I don’t think it had anything to do with ‘Love’, and yet it was in that section (the story is a surreal ‘someone is taking over my life’ kind of thing). One would think that a father-daughter story would fit in the ‘Family’ category but no, we find it in ‘Time & Space’ instead. But this is a minor, and I recognise, ultimately superficial ‘quibble’. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if I found any of the stories interesting or affecting…but they left me cold. The author’s prose presented us with some pretty phrases, and some lucid imagery, but her characters and their experiences felt flat. Characters who belong to older generations are traditional, conservative, hard-workers. Younger characters are materialistic, lazy, opportunistic, and keen to emulate Western ways.
I read Home Remedies less than a week ago and I can hardly remember any of its stories.
Anyway, just because the author’s style did not really resonate with me doesn’t mean you should skip this one.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars


Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Severance by Ling Ma

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Travellers by Helon Habila

“Are you traveling in Europe?” he asked. I caught the odd phrasing. Of course I was traveling in Europe, but I understood he meant something else; he wanted to know the nature of my relationship to Europe, if I was passing through or if I had a more permanent and legal claim to Europe. A black person’s relationship with Europe would always need qualification—he or she couldn’t simply be native European, there had to be an origin explanation.

Helon Habila’s Travellers is a searing and heart-wrenching novel that recounts the stories of those who are forced to, or choose to, migrate to Europe. Readers learn of how their lives have been disrupted by conflict, war strife, war, persecution, and famine. They embark on dangerous journeys, alone or with their loved ones, only to end up in countries which will deem them criminals, illegal, and aliens.

“As far as they were concerned, all of Africa was one huge Gulag archipelago, and every African poet or writer living outside Africa has to be in exile from dictatorship.”

Travellers can be read a series of interconnected stories. One of the novel’s main characters is nameless Nigerian graduate student who follows Gina, his wife, to Berlin where she has been granted an arts fellowship. Here Gina works on the ‘Travelers’, a series of portraits of “real migrants” whom she pays fifty euros a session. Gina shows little interests in those who sit for her, seeming more focused on displaying the pain etched on their faces (turning down those whose faces seem too “smooth” or untouched by tragedy). In spite of her self-interest and hypocrisy, Habila never condemns her actions. Our nameless protagonist however becomes close to Mark, a film student whose visa has just expired, who goes to protests and believes that “the point of art” is to resist. We then read of a Libyan doctor who is now working as a bouncer in Berlin, a Somalian shopkeeper who alongside his son was detained in a prison reserved for refugees in Bulgaria, a young woman from Lusaka who meets for the first time her brother’s wife, an Italian man who volunteers at a refugee center, and of a Nigerian asylum seeker who is being persecuted by British nativists. Their stories are interconnected, and Habila seamlessly moves switches from character to character. He renders their experiences with clarity and empathy, allowing each voice the chance to tell their story on their own terms. Habila shows the huge impact that their different statuses have (whether they are migrants, immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers) and of the xenophobia, racism, and violence they face in the West. Habila never shies away from delving into the horrifying realities faced by ‘travellers’. Yet, each story contains a moment of hope, connection, and of humanity.
Habila writes beautifully. From Germany to Italy he breathes life in the places he writes of. Although we view them through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, Habila’s vivid descriptions and striking imagery convey the atmosphere, landscape, and culture of each country.
Habila also uses plenty of adroit literary references, many of which perfectly convey a particular moment or a character’s state of mind.
Travellers is as illuminating as it is devastating. Habila presents his readers with a chorus of voices. In spite of their differences in age and gender, they are all trying to survive. They are faced with hostile environments, labelled as ‘aliens’, dehumanised, detained, and persecuted. They have to adjust to another culture and a new language. Yet, as Habila so lucidly illustrates, they have no other choice.
Haunting, urgent, and ultimately life-affirming, Travellers is a must read, one that gripped from the first page until the very last one.
If you’ve read the news lately you will know that the current pandemic is having devastating consequences for migrants and refugees (here is a article published a few days ago: ‘Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them’). I know that we are not all in the position to donate but I would still urge you to learn how to support local charities (here are two UK-based charities: ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’. A few days ago I listened with disbelief and disgust as a man on the radio said that allowing the children of immigrants and refugees into British school would somehow be detrimental to the education of ‘genuine children’. Maybe that person wouldn’t have said such an ignorant thing if he had read this book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Given that this book was described as being in the vein of Isabel AllendeI, I had quite high exceptions. While I did find the opening chapter to be intriguing, to compare Fruit of the Drunken Tree to Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez seems both lazy (a comparison that has less to do with substantial similarities—such as style or genre—that with geographical location….I’m not sure why publishers are still comparing any new authors from Latin America to Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and inadequate. Sadly, I never warmed to Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ writing style nor her characters. While I understand that the author based the story on her personal experiences, I found her storyline to be more intent on creating emotional drama than sense. Worse still, I could not get past the novel’s subtly racist undertones

“War always seemed distant from Bogotà, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like a fog as well, without us realizing, until it sat embroiling everything around us.”

First, I’ll start with a few positives. Ingrid Rojas Contreras renders the internecine climate of 1990s. The author details the realities of Colombia during Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror by conveying the day-to-day dread, fear, and violence that prevailed in this period. I appreciated the factual aspects of this novel, such as when Contreras’ recount Escobar’s latest actions by having characters listen to the radio or watch tv. The atmosphere of political uncertainty has a visible influence on the characters—regardless of their age/class. I liked reading about the games Chula and her older sister played (the bond between Chula and Cassandra was the most believable relationship in the whole novel).

Now, for the not so positives. The writing was weighed down by laboured similes (in which red fishes are “gelatinous mice” and headlights seem “traced out of nothingness by the invisible hand of God”). Ineffectual descriptions added little to the narrative, seeming more confusing that evocative (a particularly bad one is: “They looked different, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Other than to say they were thinner, and they no longer looked like children. It reminded me of how Petrona didn’t look her age, but older. Like they were scratched behind their faces.”). Chula and Petrona’s had a too similar way of narrating things, which cast a doubt on their supposed differences in age/class.
Chula’s perspective is incredibly one-dimensional. Chula is looking back to this period of her life. She’s now older and in America. Yet, ‘present’ Chula offers no special insights into what happened in Bogotà. She more or less sticks to the perspective she had of things as a child. She doesn’t understand and is mystified by what’s going on around her. There is 0 foreshadowing, which again felt like a missed opportunity. It would have added much needed suspense and provided a break from child-Chula’s limited pov. I wasn’t expecting a Kazuo Ishiguro level of conversation between past and present but Chula’s perpetual incomprehension grated on me. And Contreras could have done something more similar to what Wayétu Moore does in her memoir (the first section she recounts the Liberian Civil War as she experienced it—that is as a child—while the following ones focus on her as an adult looking back on those same events).
Perpetua’s chapters were brief and intentionally vague. Her feelings towards Gorrión and her employers are never clearly depicted. A lot of what she does or say seemed out of the blue, and ultimately made her into an unconvincingly inconsistent character. Her story also seems to carry a moralistic tone that I didn’t particularly care for (her mother warned her not to frequent that “bestia, animal, atrevido, desgraciado” who is “black like dirt”).
The mothers in this novel are portrayed like the classic ‘hysterical’ mothers, prone to screaming outbursts and fits of violence. 90% of the time Chula’s mother is portrayed as being horrible, irrational, and/or insensitive. Then she has these very out-of-character in which she seems to have had a completely switch of personality. While I know from personal experience that there are parents who can be very erratic (the joys of bipolarity) Chula’s mother was often presented as being some sort of wicked witch (the whole thing with the drunken tree). Her instability existed only to make readers pity Chula (who otherwise would have been too ‘privileged’).
Now….Gorrión. He is the only explicitly black character and he’s a monster with no redeeming qualities. Every scene he’s in is made to feel the reader uneasy. His eyes ‘bore’ into this and that, he uses his body to intimidate women and children, he’s an abusive rapist with no scrupulous. He’s just bad, through and through. Often, he’s described as the ‘black guy’ or the young man with ‘afroed hair’. Other are suspicious of his blackness, and the narrative seems to agree with their racial judgment. He’s the true ‘villain’ of the novel while Escobar remains a background figure. Gorrión doesn’t have a real personality as he only seems to have morally reprehensible character traits. The way the author describes his eyes and nose also worked to give this impression of Gorrión being less-than-human. Which…how about not (before I’m accused of being overly sensitive, there are at least three other reviews on GR who—regardless of whether they ultimately liked or disliked this novel—criticised the author’s portrayal of Gorrión.
The novel’s examination of class divide seemed simplistic and relied on tired stereotypes.
The drawn-out plot is slowed down by the author’s repetitive language. Some of the characters seem to change in the last few chapters, but this change seemed more for effect than anything else.

Overall, I did not like this novel. It was quite moralistic (especially towards Perpetua’s sex life) and the ‘friendship’ between Chula and Perpetua was poorly developed. The author seemed only to have scratched the surface of the reason why Chula was so obsessed with Perpetua. The characters—in particular the adults and Perpetua—acted incongruently throughout the novel, often only to add unneeded drama or angst.
I doubt I will ever feel inclined to read more by this author.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads