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Note:  Lily Tuck was WINNER of the National Book Award in 2004 for The News From Paraguay.

“Heathcliff’s enduring appeal is approximately that of Edmund, Iago, Richard III, the intermittent Macbeth: the villain who impresses by way of his energy, his cleverness, his peculiar sort of courage; and by his asides, inviting, as they do, the audience’s or reader’s collaboration in wickedness.” —Quotation from Joyce Carol Oates, “The Magnanimity of Wuthering Heights,” Critical Inquiry 9, no. 2 (Dec. 1982): 435-49.

cover TuckLily, Heathcliff ReduxIn this a minimalist adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, contemporary author Lily Tuck modernizes Bronte’s characters and relocates them to the horse country of Albemarle County, Virginia.  Here Bronte’s anti-hero Heathcliff becomes, instead, “Cliff,” no longer the wild and passionate man so driven by emotions that he is often described as “demonic,” or an evil spirit.  In the novella Heathcliff Redux, Tuck’s anti-hero is a far more realistically portrayed young man of limited education and even more limited self-awareness, a bit tamer than Heathcliff, but just as conniving.  Like his Heathcliff predecessor, Cliff is still trying to “find himself” and begin the life and career he believes he is destined for, and also like his predecessor, he falls in love with the wife of someone with whom he has much contact, a woman who is also passionately drawn to him through their shared connections and their love of horses. Set in the early 1960s, Heathcliff Redux reflects the comfortable and self-involved lives of upper middle-class Americans who have little understanding of how privileged they really are – people who obey their impulses because they can.

poster wuthering heights

Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon and David Niven star in this 1939 film of Wuthering Heights.

Telling the story in the first person, the narrator recalls reading Wuthering Heights in high school and to having seen the 1939 film, starring Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, and David Niven.  Though she is from Massachusetts and has disliked the southern culture in which she has lived throughout her ten-year marriage, she continues to work with her husband Charlie on their four-hundred acre farm in Virginia where they also raise beef cattle.  As the novel opens, the speaker and Charlie are attending a steeplechase race with neighbors.  This year, during the race, a gray horse falls and has to be put down, leading to a brief reference to Native Dancer, also a “gray,” who won the Preakness and the Belmont in 1953, a contrast in fates that becomes a symbolic moment just before the narrator meets Cliff for the first time.  Immediately attracted to him, the speaker asks if “Cliff” is a nickname for “Heathcliff,” only to discover that Cliff has never read Wuthering Heights and has no idea what she is talking about.  A digression about dogs and Emily Bronte’s dog Keeper, who howled for a week after she died at the age of thirty, about the speaker’s twin sons, and about the solitary cuckoo bird, who lays its eggs in another bird’s nest, are other suggestive images adding to the ominous mood of the story here.

faulkner and horse

Author William Faulkner with one of his horses.

The female speaker is re-reading Wuthering Heights, and numerous references and quotations from that novel appear throughout the remainder of this novella as the general pattern of the Wuthering Heights plot continues, with emphasis on the damage Cliff’s relationship with the speaker is causing her family.  Literary references appear throughout, adding “stature” to the main characters and plot, which are developed “minimally.”  William Faulkner, who used to hunt on his horse called “Powerhouse” is featured, and on a family trip to the University of Virginia, the family visits the dorm room of Edgar Allan Poe.  Back home, the speaker and her husband Charlie run into increasing financial problems related to Cliff, who is her husband’s business partner, and the conclusion, like that of a Greek tragedy, comes inevitably. The final scene between Cliff and the speaker is interrupted by a news report of the assassination of President Kennedy.

The room of Edgar Allan Poe, visited by the speaker and her family, at University of Virginia

The room of Edgar Allan Poe, visited by the speaker and her family at the University of Virginia

Four short stories appear after the Heathcliff Redux novella, and these, too, include numerous literary references.  “Labyrinth Two,” which takes place on the isle of Capri in the 1950s, is described as an “homage of sorts” to Roberto Bolano.  The author introduces the story with a photograph in which two young men and two female friends are having drinks before dinner and chatting about their lives.  Describing the photograph in detail and indicating that it was probably taken in the late 1950s, the speaker also mentions Alberto Moravia, Orson Welles, and Pablo Neruda.  The backgrounds, interests, and loves of the quartet at the table having dinner occupy the remainder of the story as they get ready to go to Gemma’s where they hope to meet Graham Greene and his “great love,” Catherine Walston. The many characters and their histories remain superficial, making this story difficult to follow and empathize with, which may be the whole point, a primary focus here being on the literary references and pleasurable setting in 1950s Capri.

Graham Greene and his "great love," Cathrine Walston.

Graham Greene and his “great love,” Catherine Walston.

“The Dead Swan” has echoes of  the myth of Leda and the Swan, as a young woman whose husband is in jail for problems with drugs, finds a dead swan and brings it home, and as she thinks about her life with her unstable husband, she also thinks of the swan, who mates for life and is now dead.  “Carl Schurz Park” tells the story of four young men who pick up a young woman “for cash” and then, in Carl Schurz Park throw her off a bridge into the East River.  Years later, the wife of one of them talks about the Peter Pan statue in that park and the fact that she’d like to go to the park with him to see it, an irony which causes the husband to remember his secret past.  “A Natural State” tells of a woman’s harassment by a Swedish man via e-mail.  Alarmed, she thinks of Kenneth Branagh, who plays Wallander, the Swedish detective in films, of thriller writer Jo Nesbo, and of literary author Peter Hoeg, as she also remembers her time backpacking in India, her participation in an infamous cult, and her lovers of both sexes.   

Author Lily Tuck.

Author Lily Tuck.

Heathcliff Redux and the four stories are minimalist, and as such are much more abbreviated –  and feel more undeveloped – than what some readers will expect. Identification with the characters is difficult, as the plot line, and sometimes the themes, are left up to the reader to figure out based on brief clues by the author.  The dialogue feels real, and the depiction of small moments is insightful, but I often longed for a Big Moment and some sort of Dramatic Recognition on the part of the many characters as I observed them from my distanced viewpoint.

Photos:  The poster of the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights appears on https://www.filmsite.org

William Faulkner and his horse are from https://news.olemiss.edu

The Edgar Allan Poe Room at the University of Virginia is maintained by the Raven Society:  https://news.virginia.edu

Graham Greene and his “great love,” Catherine Walston are found on https://www.newsweek.com

Author Lily Tuck’s photo appears on https://www.abc.com.py

REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Experimental, Literary, Psychological study, Social Issues, United States, US Regional
Written by: Lily Tuck
Published by: Atlantic Monthly Press
Date Published: 02/04/2020
ISBN: 978-0802147592
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Celia Houdart–QUARRY

“I let myself be guided…by what I write. I create a setting, characters, and themes, then watch them interact.  I become a secretary, jotting down what happens in the strange laboratory that is a work of fiction.  It’s a bit of role reversal.  I become a witness to this world I’ve made, I listen in with an ear for what I’d call the music, I pay attention to echoes, repetitions, the whole system of internal harmonics that I didn’t deliberately put in to begin with, but which I notice in hindsight and then decide whether to not to bring them into sharper relief…”—author Celia Houdart, in Interview introducing the novel.

cover quarry

In this experimental novel by French author Celia Houdart, the action mimics, to some extent, a crime novel, though in keeping with the above quotation, the style of the narrative is unique.  Marian, a judge in Pisa, Italy, and a central character, is about to preside over the hearing of a man accused of shooting the prefect of Pisa three years ago, a crime for which the victim is still plagued with memory problems and breathing difficulties.  Marco Ipranossian, an Armenian, was arrested at the train station in Florence, fifty miles away, a month after the shooting, and was found with some compromising paperwork tucked inside his shirt.  Now, after three years, the time has finally arrived for the legal case to begin against him.  From the time of Ipranossian’s arrest, however, the prefect-victim has stated that Marco Ipranossian does not really look like the man he remembers as the shooter and is much thinner.  A juror also sees “little resemblance” between Marco Ipranossian and the photo of a suspect that appeared in the local newspaper at the time of Ipranossian’s arrest.  A man in the second row of the jurors, the reader is told, is suffering from conjunctivitis and reacting badly to the air-conditioning, a fact that enters the narrative with the same emphasis as the statements about Ipranossian.  The suspect, the reader is told, is sitting hunched over in his seat, with cuffed hands, listening to the bells of San Zeno Church striking noon.

Church of San Zeno in Pisa, where the suspect hears the bells at noon. Photo by Pom'.

Church of San Zeno in Pisa, where the suspect hears the bells at noon. Photo by Pom’.

These brief details seem to appear almost randomly and without elaboration, attesting to the author’s interview statement that she creates characters and then becomes a witness to the world she has made.  She provides no deep analysis of character, at this point, and no hints about motivation or background detail to put the suspect into the context of the community and raise suspicions about him, as other “crime novels” do.  She presents “just the facts” – and leaves it to the reader to supply or create the mystery.  Successive short chapters refer to the typed report of the legal case, which has typos, carriage returns in the middle of a line, and irregular spacing, causing Marian, the judge, to wonder briefly about who typed it.  Short sections regarding Marian’s courtship and her husband Andrea’s exotic doctoral thesis on ancient South-Indian textiles, about their fifteen-year-old daughter, and about Andrea’s problems finding a job appear for consideration.  The reader also learns that Marco, the suspect, is a mechanic who helps out at Primo Maggio, a popular local restaurant in Buti, but little connection is drawn between this information, the crime, and the other characters.  As the author confirms, also in the introductory Interview, “Reality [compared to traditional crime novels] is much more chaotic, filled with lots of absurd, disordered things all happening at once….Everyday life often seems to me like a strange adventure, full of chance encounters and random coincidences.”

Sheep in Olive grove, which Marian sees when she goes to meet a shepherd.

Sheep in olive grove, which Marian sees when she goes to meet a shepherd outside of Pisa.

A substantial section on Lea, daughter of Marian and Andrea, and her commitment to her sculpture work with Carrara marble brings the history of the Carrara community to the fore, just as Marian receives a phone call asking her to meet a shepherd who may have information about the three-year-old shooting.  His testimony might be useful for the trial of Ipranossian.  Questions about the police investigation arise but get no more emphasis than information about the Palio being held in town that spring.  Some coincidences highlight the ending of the novel, as the novel concludes abruptly in San Francisco.  Of the ending the author says, “When I’m writing, I’m actually more concerned with the balance of the composition as a whole, rather than the thread of the plot, which allows it (the plot) to break off suddenly or be left unresolved, hanging in midair as you say….The cumulative mass of sensations should be so strong that, once the book is closed, each of these feelings can unfold inside us….An ending is successful for me when it happens in hindsight, after the fact, like a time bomb. Or a chemical reaction.”

Barbara Hepworth’s “Pierced Monolith in Stone,” shows that Lea has not changed her priorities with her move to California.

K. E. Gormley, the translator, who has been the interviewer of Celia Houdart in the preliminary pages of the novel, reveals her own sensitivity to the author’s style and intention in a “Translator’s Preface,” which appears immediately after her Interview of the author.  She admits that initially she “raced through [the novel], scanning for clues, intent on solving the mystery myself before the solution was handed to me at the end.  When I reached the final page, I felt like I had been tricked into running off a cliff.  Where was the big reveal?  What had I missed?  What I’d missed was, unfortunately, almost everything.”  Because of the author’s “clean, concise prose,” however, the translator approached the book again, and this time came away with a whole new understanding of Quarry.  While maintaining the author’s seemingly casual approach to the narrative as she translates, she also studies the details and what she sees as the author’s intention in writing this “almost minimalist” novel. 

author photo celia houdart

Author Celia Houdart

Some characters who appear to be power players here turn out to be almost irrelevant, while others prove to be significant players.  Ultimately, the MacGuffiins are identified and vanish quietly, and the reader, too, begins to enjoy the new understandings which appear almost without warning, establishing this novel as not only unique but carefully crafted in its literary style. Author Celia Houdart takes some big chances with her approach to this novel, which grows on the reader as s/he spends more time with the author and her perspective.  Ultimately, as the author confirms in the Interview at the beginning, even the assumption that Quarry is a “crime novel” proves to be a “red herring.”  As Celia Houdart makes clear, her characters and their ordinary lives turn out to be bigger and more important than simply finding out “whodunnit.”

Photos.  The Church of San Zeno, in Pisa.  Ipranossian listens to the bells at noon while he is awaiting trial.  https://www.flickr.com/  Photo by Pom’

Sheep in olive grove, a sight which intrigues Marian as she drives to meet with a shepherd:  https://www.facebook.com

Author Celia Houdart:  https://twitter.com/editionspol/status/909672283605815296

Barbara Hepworth’s “Pierced Monolith with Color,” made of Roman stone, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, which shows that Lea has not changed in her commitments.  https://www.pinterest.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, France, Italy, Literary
Written by: Celia Houdart
Published by: Dalkey Archive Press
Date Published: 01/28/2020
ISBN: 978-1628973273
Available in: Paperback

“The sidewalk was cleansed of the blood.  Rivers of rain, water hoses, and street sweepers joined forces to scrub the surface after the last remnant was removed.  Submissive, the street continued to absorb convoys of people, scraps of paper and cigarette butts…Who could remember that stormy night, thirty years ago, when a woman jumped to her death from her rooftop apartment in one of the few still-intact buildings?  Of sound mind, with the same parsimonious strictness she used to do everything…the teacher took her life.”

Elsa Wcover teachereiss, a teacher who had arrived in Tel Aviv as a refugee from the Holocaust years ago, was a mystery to all her students, and when she jumped from the top of a building and committed suicide in 1982, she deliberately “left no testimony behind.”  Only a single photograph served as a tangible reminder of her adult life, a rare passport photo which had traveled through successive editions of the high school yearbook, a “mirror of her life, [bearing] the pride and severity of someone who rarely talks to another soul.”  An enigma throughout her career, she was about sixty when the narrator of this book knew her in class, a heavily made-up woman in gray clothes whose gaze conveyed the idea of “keep your distance,” the “war paint” of her appearance “heralding a latent battle in which she was trapped.”  Her students, most of whom enjoyed her classes, “were her entire world, or most of it, sewn and unraveled anew each year,” young people who shared her life for a year and then were replaced. “She would not have us teach her anything, just as she spared us her own story.” 

michal ben-naftali

Author Michal Ben-Naftali

Focusing on Elsa Weiss and her life, Israeli author Michal Ben-Naftali develops the narrative into a stunning novel about aspects of the Holocaust and its effects on its victims, unlike any other that I have read in my many years of reviewing.  This novel has surprises on every page, differing from most other “Holocaust novels” in that it does not follow the customary pattern of presenting innocent victims, the horrors they face from the Nazis, their crises, and the new lives some develop in the aftermath of the war.  Instead, author Michal Ben-Naftali presents in Elsa Weiss a woman who has hidden her personal details and personality throughout the Holocaust and even afterward, a woman who has become virtually anonymous.  Her life feels almost peripheral to the horrors of the 1940s, and she survives the wartime savagery in part because she blends in, at least in the opinion of one of her former students. 

While teaching in Tel Aviv, Elsa accompanies students on a trip to Shavei Tzion, a Byzantine ruin in the north of Israel. Photo by Shmuel Bar-Am.

While teaching in Tel Aviv, Elsa accompanies students on a trip to Shavei Tzion, a Byzantine ruin in the north of Israel. Photo by Shmuel Bar-Am.

This unnamed student herself is also now a literature teacher in Tel Aviv, where she and Elsa both lived, but she is a very different kind of teacher from Elsa.  She wants her students to call her by her first name and tries to connect on a personal level with them.  No matter how much experience she gains, however, she admits that she herself is still searching for a special someone, the teacher who can teach her “the lesson that only a few could teach, or that only one in particular could teach,” Elsa Weiss.  Knowing little about her, the unnamed teacher must rely on what “might have happened, and most likely did happen to the one who went to the point of no return.”  The only real facts this teacher has are that Elsa was born in 1917, passed away in 1982, parted from her parents in 1944, and that she crossed oceans and continents. “I know everything and nothing at all…From this point forward, it is all fiction.”

Families on a Kastner train to Israel.

Families on a “Kastner train” to Israel.

And so the invented story of Elsa’s life begins.  Born in Hungary, Elsa is said to have lived in pre-war Paris, where she studied French and then taught it. Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, the narrator-speaker also invents Elsa’s early life in Hungary and her family and friends there, establishing the religious rivalries within Judaism and some of the tensions between Gentiles and Jews.  After high school, Elsa travels to Paris, marries in 1939, then returns with her husband to Hungary.  The family’s safety collapses in March, 1944, with the German invasion of Kolozsvar, where they lived, though “most Hungarians in Kolozsvar [were] indifferent to what [was] happening around them,” even with the Nazis’ establishment of a ghetto of almost twenty thousand inhabitants.  Though Elsa believes that negotiating with the Germans is the best way to solve their difficulties, her parents eventually convince her to take the parents’ own tickets on the “Kastner train” to Palestine, and she obeys, eventually landing, however, at Bergen-Belsen, where she experiences some of the punishments and torments meted out to all Jews. Later, she arrives by delayed Kastner train in Switzerland, where she becomes a resident of a sanatorium in the resort town of Caux, from which she finally leaves for Palestine.

Rudolph Kastner who saved 1600 people on one of his trains but faced trial for the way he achieve this.

Rudolph Kastner who saved 1600 people on one of his trains but faced trial for the way he achieved this.

What makes this novel so different from others describing this period is that, throughout, Elsa manages to  avoid the biggest horrors of the Holocaust, always believing that things are not as bad as people think they are.  Intelligent and hard-working, her post-war awakening to the realities of the Holocaust, and, by contrast, the realities of her own survival, leave her with a sense of guilt beyond measure as she examines her own life and her decisions during the war – her belief in appeasement in Hungary, her disregard of the seriousness of the Nazi movement, her acceptance of tickets on the Kastner Train, and eventually her fortuitous immigration to Israel and its new beginning.  In 1953, when Rudolf Kastner himself is put on trial for his connections to Adolf Eichmann and payoffs by the wealthy to get them to Switzerland, Elsa realizes, with dismay, the full truth of what she has done, a realization for which she spends the rest of her life atoning as a “tarnished victim.”

Former hotel used as sanatorium in Caux, Switzerland, after the war.

Former hotel used as sanatorium in Caux, Switzerland, during and after the war.

Dramatic and thought-provoking, this novel abandons the traditional visions of Holocaust survivors and their stories, presenting Elsa Weiss in a series of seemingly hopeless situations from which she believes she can escape, and does. The aftereffects of her survival on her values and sense of identity, however, show her spending the remainder of her life trying, on some level, to erase her naive decisions and allow her to atone for her mistakes.  The eventual visit of the teacher-narrator to Elsa’s grave and her discoveries there, reveal the ultimate lesson of this superb novel. 

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://institutfrancais-israel.com

While teaching in Tel Aviv, Elsa accompanies students on a trip to Shavei Tzion, a Byzantine ruin in the north of Israel. Photo by Shmuel Bar-Am.  https://www.timesofisrael.com/

Families on a “Kastner train” to Israel:  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Rudolf Kastner (1906 – 1957) saved 1600 lives by paying Adolf Eichman to let them pass.  He was tried after the war and shot to death by a murderer.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kastner_train   Full story on Wiki, here.

Caux, Switzerland, where Elsa Weiss spent time in a sanatarium, formerly a hotel, recovering from the horrors of the Holocaust as it affected her family.  https://english.vietnamnet.vn

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Hungary, Israel, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Michal Ben-Naftali
Published by: Open Letter Books
Date Published: 01/21/2020
ISBN: 978-1948830072
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“We were innocent back then, even if we already didn’t have a future.   NO ONE GETS OUT OF THIS NEIGHBORHOOD ALIVE, someone had written on the side of a house, because the neighborhood was bad, really and truly bad.  If you’re born black,  you’re already screwed; imagine if, in addition, you have to live in squalid rooming houses of a neighborhood like this; and I’m a university graduate, a psychologist, and even have a master’s in business administration, you’d think I wouldn’t be so fucked.” – Alain Silva Acosta

Setting his novel in Puncover black cathedralta Gotica, the poorer side of Cienfuegos, a city on the south side of Cuba, author Marcial Gala, creates a grim novel of the non-stop action in this city, while, at the same time, breathing life into people, societies, and places new to many readers.  Often the narrative feels as if Marcial Gala himself, a resident of this city, is “hanging out,” invisibly, with some of the characters here, even as he is telling their stories, and on several occasions one character even recommends that another character go see “Marcial” for some kind of help with an issue.  As a result, the author creates the feeling that he is part of the action, living a personal story in Cienfuegos within the more objective stories of the main characters. Unconscionable, often life-changing difficulties, are drawn realistically, rather than intuitively or emotionally here, as his fellow-characters  react to traumas they have experienced in their daily lives. Casual murder, innocent cannibalism, the betrayal of lovers for cash, and a general mood of prevailing evil, which even infects the ghosts of some of the dead, make this a novel in which anything can – and often does – take place without warning.


Marcial Gala. Photo by Nestor Garcia.

The events which serve as the basic framework for the novel begin with the arrival in Cienfuegos of the mysterious Arturo Stuart, his wife, and his family, two teenage sons and an older daughter.  They have been living in Camaguey, but they offer no information about their pasts, giving no real background about what they have been doing there and why they have come to Cienfuegos.  Arturo is a preacher of sorts, a Salvationist, and as he sets out to establish a congregation, he is also paving the way for the building of a cathedral, to be the biggest church ever seen in Cuba, “something that, in these times when everything is in decline, dares to rise up and say I’m here despite it all, look at me.”  The pastor’s  first days do not get off to a positive start in Cienfuegos, however. Arturo’s younger son, Prince, about eleven, is immediately labeled by other children as gay because he is reading a book in the middle of the day, and while the psychologist whose quotation opens this review didn’t see what happened afterward, he was contacted immediately for help:  “Prince split open Lupe’s kid Barbaro’s head.  He did it with a book, terrible, blood everywhere.”  Another character, Guts, describes the attack as “a quick, skilled, and cunning blow, as if he’d practiced a lot. This dude has a future in the neighborhood,” Guts concludes.  Barbaro’s mother swears vengeance, and the pastor denies his son could have done the deed, but he eventually pays the mother five hundred pesos to keep her quiet.

Cienfuegos was divided into two sections, Punta Gotica on the right side of Marti Park, and Punta Gorda, the more affluent part of the city.

Cienfuegos was divided into two sections, Punta Gotica on the right side of Jose Marti Park, named for a man who dedicated his life to liberty and independence, and Punta Gorda, the more affluent part of the city.

The first murder takes place before the novel even reaches the twenty-page mark.  One young thug, Gringo, says he “slashed [a stranger’s] neck and didn’t stop until his eyes were like a dead cow’s.”  Then he and friends cut up the victim and take his money from a backpack, ten thousand pesos.  They make additional money by butchering the body and selling the meat as steak.  Gringo and his buddies now know that any time that they want more money, all they have to do is kill another “little cow” and “get more veal like that, the really tender kind,” the kind tourists want and will buy.  They butcher two more people without delay.  Dozens of characters get involved in the various kinds of evil which seems to be bubbling up from Cienfuegos, despite the emphasis on God by the Salvationists.  One young woman, Berta, is even being courted by Aramis, a ghost.  As the evil ones from Cienfuegos continue to spread in many directions outside Cuba, some of them continue to kill, others fall in love and marry (when it is convenient), and many remain on the dark side, committing serious crimes and additional murders, the “go-to” solution whenever some of these sadists get bored, frightened, or need money.  Only a few find success in a variety of occupations from writing to painting.

The Basilica de Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi, was begun in Barcelona in 1882, and is still unfinished. One character from Cienfuegos used to go to see this cathedral in remembrance of the cathedral in Cienfuegos.

The Basilica de Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi, was begun in Barcelona in 1882, and is still unfinished. One character from Cienfuegos used to go to see this cathedral in Barcelona in remembrance of the cathedral in Cienfuegos.

No matter how far these people travel or what they do, however, they never seem to escape the essence of Cienfuegos. Flashforwarded scenes show that Gringo, who becomes a major character, ends up in Portland, Oregon; Louisville, Kentucky; and later Texas, while Guts is in Barcelona. Though day-by-day scenes say little about the building of the temple in Cienfuegos, it is supposedly being built, slowly, in an effort to create the New Jerusalem.  The size of Arturo’s congregation continues to get bigger, eventually reaching twenty thousand Salvationists, but the building of the church makes little to no progress.  The godly life as a theme is almost ignored here, and the whole idea of sin and redemption, which would seem to be a logical choice for development on some level, considering the horrific crimes which some main characters commit, is virtually ignored.  Sins are committed, but no redemption is sought.  Life is superficial and sensual, with characters concentrating on the pleasures of the moment.

map cienfuegos

CLICK to enlarge.

Author Marcial Gala, immensely talented and with seemingly unlimited energy, is also an author who seems to enjoy scenes of the instant, the moment, and the dramatic.  Few long scenes exist, and many characters are introduced then disappear from the narrative.  Much of the dark action feels satirical, but the brief depiction of Americans in the United States by Gringo, which could have found a place in a satire in which so many Cuban characters escape to the US, is dropped shortly after it is introduced. Themes start to appear but fall away as a new scene with a new crisis introduces another idea.  A grand finale of horror ties the sad, cynical conclusion to the lives of killers and a writer’s vision of the passage of time, when “all of Cuba is underwater,” and nothing remains of the cathedral. “When everything dries up and nothing remains, and the extraterrestrial voyagers find it, how will they know that this cathedral was never finished? They will think that it was once the main temple of a city of happy beings and that the parishioners’ children once ran down its aisles, and over the course of time, will it matter that it wasn’t like that?”

Photos.  The author’s photo by Nestor Garcia, appears on https://www.clarin.com/

Cienfuegos was divided into two sections, Punta Gotica on the right side of Jose Marti Park, named for a man who dedicated his life to liberty and independence, and Punta Gorda, the more affluent part of the city.  https://www.123rf.com

The Basilica de Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi, was begun in Barcelona in 1882, and is still unfinished. One character from Cienfuegos used to go to see this cathedral in Barcelona in remembrance of the cathedral in Cienfuegos.  https://news.artnet.com/

The map of Cuba may be found on https://www.pinterest.ru/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Cuba, Experimental, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Marcial Gala
Published by: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Date Published: 01/07/2020
ISBN: 978-0374118013
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  This book was a FINALIST for the National Book Critics Circle Award (2019).  The author is also a past WINNER of the American Book Award (2018) and the Los Angeles Book Prize for Best Fiction (2015). This book is WINNER of the Rathbones Folio Prize for 2020.

“The only things that parents can really give their children are little knowledges: this is how you cut your own nails, this is the temperature of a real hug…this is how I love you.  And what children give their parents, in return, is something less tangible but at the same time larger and more lasting, something like a drive to embrace life fully and understand it, on their behalf, so they can try to explain it to them, pass it down to them ‘with acceptance and without rancor,’ as James Baldwin once wrote, but also with a certain rage and fierceness.”

The speakecover lost children's archiver of this passage, a mother and wife, is traveling by car from New York to Arizona one summer with her husband and two children – his son, age ten, and her daughter, age five.  The wife has been married to her husband for four years, having met him on a research project for NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, the purpose of which is to sample and collect all “keynotes and soundmarks” that are emblematic of New York City.  The couple’s specific tasks have focused on collecting samples of all the languages spoken in the city over the past four years, over a hundred fifty at the time of this novel.  Because the wife is close to finishing her part of the project and is ready to start editing, she can devote only a month to the Arizona vacation trip.  Her husband, having already moved on to a detailed study of Apacheria, the historical land of the Apaches, now plans a future longterm study in the southwest.  Independently, the wife has become involved in researching the plight of children who have entered the country illegally to reconnect with parents who are also in the country illegally, where they sometimes work two jobs in an effort to provide food for their families outside the U.S.  One of the wife’s friends, Manuela, worries about an upcoming hearing regarding her possible deportation.  In the meantime, her two children have already been entrusted to a “coyote” who has abandoned them in the southern desert of the United States, where they have been captured by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. No one knows if they or Manuela will be deported before the family can reconnect, and the wife hopes to help her.

59534-1From the outset, the subject of what constitutes “lost children” becomes a major theme.  Certainly, Manuela’s children are lost, both within the bureaucracy and within the life of their mother, but as the novel develops, and the different interests of the speaker/wife and her husband become clearer, their own children, too, appear to be in danger of becoming lost in their parents’ failing marriage.  The husband’s studies of Geronimo and the Apaches illustrate the lost children of that devastated culture, while the wife’s recent studies of the lost children in the immigration system continue to develop dramatically as they travel.  Few readers will be able to forget the heartbreaking plight of those children, when the family observes a plane leaving the airport in Artesia, New Mexico, loaded with unaccompanied minors being returned “home” to Latin America.  The lost children “archive” expands further for the entire family as time continues.


Geronimo, photographed by Edward Curtis.

Although the themes here regarding home, family, culture, and values are broad, unforgettable, and sensitively rendered, the most memorable aspect of this novel, for many readers, will be author Valeria Luiselli’s ability to create real people, including children, who are on vacation and looking for fun.  Without a touch of artifice, she brings the individuals in the family so fully to life, creating scenes of such intimacy and often humor, that I actually looked up the author’s own biography to see if, in fact, this was the story of her own life.  It is not, despite a few surface similarities.  The two children here, ten and five years old, are both extremely bright and thoughtful, and while they sometimes whine about how long it may be to get where they are going, they become fascinated by the stories told by their parents as they move south, visit places like Geronimo’s grave, listen to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, take Polaroid photos, and address each other by their adopted names – Swift Feather, Papa Cochise, Lucky Arrow, and Memphis.  The little girl often naps in the back of the car and still sucks her thumb, though she loves singing songs and has an unusual amount of energy and curiosity.  The son likes hearing stories about the Eagle Warriors, following maps, and learning about Native American culture.  Neither one complains about missing TV or the internet, and not a single “device” accompanies them on the trip.

children escapiong on trains

Children and families resting on the tops of railroad cars without any protection as they head for the US border.

Throughout the trip, the author includes references to literature, including works by Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Jack Kerouac, Susan Sontag, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, and others, some of which are shared with the children.  For music, they visit Nashville and Graceland and play the songs of Odetta, Johnny Cash, and the Rolling Stones.  When the boy cannot figure out what scenes to photograph with his new Polaroid, the mother makes suggestions based on the work of famous road photographers – road signs, vacant land, cars, motels, diners, and ruins. Mother and son also have some complex discussions about time and space in the arts and real life – how people can feel time and space differently and why being overwhelmed by the present makes imagining the future impossible.  Throughout the novel, however, the most lasting and most often repeated image is that of a little red book: Elegies for Lost Children, by Ella Camposanto, an Italian author translated into English in 2014.  Camposanto’s book tells the stories of immigrants, especially children, trying to get into the US by riding on the roofs of trains.  Divided into “elegies,” not chapters, it focuses on the issues concerning one group of seven children as they try to get across the border to safety.

Chiricahua, Apache country, where the boy took a photograph which appears at the end of the book.

The Chiricahuas, in Apache country, where the boy took a photograph which appears at the end of the book.

As the trip draws closer to its end in Arizona, at least for the little girl and her mother, who has responsibilities back in New York, I found myself reading more and more slowly.  I have rarely cared about characters as much as Valeria Luiselli made me care about this family.  An emergency involving both parents and children, as the novel comes close to the end, suddenly overturns all my expectations for the ending, and I could not make myself read it slowly as it unfolded in stream-of-consciousness style.  As the well-developed themes all come together, and the characters individually come closer to resolving some of their problems, I began actually to feel the “resolution” which is the mark of an effective conclusion. A short section at the end, in which the little girl lists, phonetically, all the different kinds of echoes she has heard, is accompanied by a note from her ten-year-old brother as she gets ready to depart for New York.  A crowning gift to the reader of this astonishing book is the album of the young boy’s Polaroid photos, in which the places, people, and images of this book become really, truly real.


echo canyon narrows

Echo Canyon, a favorite place for the little girl, who keeps trying to figure out who is shouting the echoes.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.publishersweekly.com/

The photo of Geronimo by famed photographer Edward Curtis, is found here:  https://www.pinterest.com

Children and families riding without protection on the top of a railroad car, hoping to reach  freedom on the US border.  https://www.wnycstudios.org/

The Chiricahua Mountains, Apache territory, in Arizona, is one place that the boy took a photo of his little sister.  His own photo of this scene appears at the end of the book.  https://en.wikipedia.org

A favorite place of the little girl is Echo Canyon,  where the children enjoy calling out the name of Geronimo to hear the echo of “onimo, onimo, onimo.”  https://www.americansouthwest.net/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Exploration, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Southwest, United States
Written by: Valeria Luiselli
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 02/12/2019
ISBN: 978-0525520610
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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