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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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

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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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Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Sabrina & Corina is a touching collection of short stories. In these 11 stories Kali Fajardo-Anstine depicts the lives and experiences of Latinas in the United States (mainly in Denver, Colorado). Their everyday realities are marked by many social injustices: poverty, racism, sexism, addiction, parental neglect, emotional and physical abuse. While Fajardo-Anstine doesn’t shy away from portraying their bleak circumstances, the stories never felt pessimistic or overwhelming depressing. As the characters are contending with grief and trauma—personal and generational—they find some solace in moments of connection, a sense of understanding or kinship, with others. The women in these stories also find comfort in taking part in or looking back to family traditions. These scenes gave the stories a rather bittersweet tone, one that perfectly complemented Fajardo-Anstine’s tender yet bold prose.
Motherhood, sisterhood, and female agency are at the heart of these 11 stories. While these over-aching themes gave a sense of unity to the collection, their similarities—in tone, topics, and style—caused the less memorable stories to blur together (some of these were ‘Sisters’, ‘Julian Plaza’, and ‘Any Further West’). The stories that really stood out to me were ‘Sugar Babies’, ‘Sabrina & Corina’, and ‘Tomi’. ‘Sugar Babies’ was easily a 5 star read and my favourite in the whole collection (perhaps because Fajardo-Anstine faithfully renders the perspective of a young girl)
Sabrina & Corina is a heart-rendering debut and I will be on the lookout for Fajardo-Anstine’s future work.

My rating: 3 ½ stars

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In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

A novel that is both challenging and hear-rendering, and Allende showcases her skills for creating vivid characters and riveting storylines. This translation carries through a rhythm that is resonant with the one of writers such as Alice Hoffman.
But before I delve into a review…who thought that cover was a good idea?
I can’t believe that someone who had actually read this novel would decide to put this corny cover and add that cheesy inscription (‘every friendship leaves a trace’). No. Just no. This is badly marketed. You miss out on a readership that would actually enjoy and appreciate this novel while making readers who will end up giving it poor reviews because it isn’t what it advertises. This isn’t a light, fluffy, romcom. Allende talks about rape, torture, violent deaths, drugs, and many more topics that do not fall under the type of genre which that cover suggests.
Couldn’t you have used an image that at least evoked the ‘winter’ ?
No?Alright…you have the power Scribner. Rant over.

Allende handles challenging topics in a way that renders the reading process far from painful: balancing small everyday trifles with the most toxic aspects of our society. And she does it so well. She is a swift storyteller: the language and phrasing make each page incredibly compelling (kudos to the translator). The atmosphere created by Allende is enriched by graceful descriptions and wistful observations. She handles horrific situations in a upfront and honest way, she does not shy from portraying the ugliness of the world, and yet, the story doesn’t suffer from it. Far from it. The seriousness is contrasted by the incredibly sympathetic and ‘real’ main characters. I was engrossed by their pasts and by their present. The nostalgic tone of the novel is heightened by the characters contemplations. Allende’s expressive prose make this novel a true pleasure to read, despite that it explicitly depicts difficult – if not downright horrible – scenes. There is an element of humor that contrasts the character’s painful experiences. I recommend this to fans of Ann Patchett and or Anne Tyler.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

A moving tale in which language is key. Patchett’s lyrical prose vividly renders a – somehow – surreal situation by focusing on the mundane: we see terrorists and hostages take part in ordinary everyday things (such as cooking, listening to music, playing chess…). A whimsical and absorbing story where characters albeit being limited by ‘language’ found other means through which they can understand one another. Patchett confines a diverse cast of characters in a restricted space thus creating all sorts of interesting relationships. The tone of the novel is somewhat light: plenty of subtle humour is found in the most tense moments.
An atmospheric and moving novel that beautifully conveys a complex – and very dangerous – situation.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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