Saturday, August 29, 2015

Spanish Lit Month 2015 Book Review: The Island of Eternal Love, by Daina Chaviano

This is an exciting event co-hosted every year by Richard @ Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu @ Winstonsdad's Blog. This year, not only will books by Spanish-speaking authors be featured, but books by Catalan-speaking authors, as well. 

This year, the event is taking place during the months of July and August (it's been extended). Every participant will be reading these novels, either in the original language, or in translation. I'm very excited to be participating for the first time this year!

The book I have chosen to read and review is La Isla de los Amores Infinitos (The Island of Eternal Love), by Cuban author Daina Chaviano. Although I originally read the book in Spanish, back in 2008, I have just finished re-reading it in English.

The Island of Eternal Love
Daina Chaviano
Hardcover, 336 pages
Riverhead Books, First Edition
June 12, 2008
Andrea G. Labinger
Contemporary Fiction, Cuban Literature,
Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction,
Magic Realism, Romance

Book Synopsis
A magical new novel "of loss and love across more than a century of Cuba's past."(Chicago Sun-Times)

In an effort to escape her solitude in Miami, Cecilia seeks refuge in a bar where she meets Amalia, a mysterious old woman whose fascinating tale keeps Cecilia returning night after night. Her powerful story of long-vanished epochs weaves the saga of three families from far-flung pieces of the world. A suicide in China unleashes a chain of family reactions; a strange curse pursues certain women in a Spanish town; and a young woman is seized from her home on the African coast and transported to an unfamiliar world. These characters' lives will become entwined over time, from Cuba under Spanish colonial rule to the present day. Ardent, predestined loves from the past will gain renewed strength in Cecilia, who is also obsessed by the mystery of a phantom house that appears and disappears throughout the city of Miami, and whose secret she is attempting to discover.

The Goodreads link shows an ebook, which is incorrect. The cover shown does not exist in an ebook edition. It's actually the hardcover. I know, because I own this novel.

 Below is the cover of the original Spanish-language edition, published by Grijalbo in 2006, which I also happen to own.This is the first edition I read.

My introductory post on this author can be found HERE.

My Review

I have just finished -- for the second time -- a journey through the ethnic history of a people -- my people -- in a land of love and blood, a land of magically captivating landscapes in which sun and moon dance to the intoxicating rhythms of a gently rolling sea.

Chaviano's enthralling story has wrapped me in a nostalgic dream, one that has dwelt in my subconscious mind for years. It is the dream of a beautiful island paradise, one where love is indeed eternal, where the warm breezes of the Malecon entice one with their romantic whispers, where the night pulses with the vibrant music of the masters -- Ernesto Lecuona and Benny More...

This dream awakened once more in me as I read this enchanting story, which weaves the tales of three different families, three different ethnic groups, into one single thread. The experiences of each family also serve to highlight key periods of Cuban history.

There is the Chinese family, who seeks refuge from war in a land already sheltering their fellow countrymen. There is the African family, in the person of a young girl cruelly snatched from the bosom of her tribe, to be sold into slavery. Then there is the family from Spain, whose female members inherit a strangely humorous curse.

Cecilia, the protagonist, ties everything together through her unusual conversations with a mysterious old woman whom she meets in a Little Havana bar. This Miami neighborhood has been thus nicknamed for its heavy concentration of Cuban immigrants in the '60s and '70s. 

As Cecilia listens to the old woman's strangely fascinating tale, Cuban boleros play in the background, while vistas of a Havana from a bygone era roll on a screen set up next to the dance floor. Cecilia's nostalgia and sense of loss grow, even as, in her life away from the bar and these enthralling tales, she starts to investigate a very strange phenomenon -- a haunted house that appears in different locations all over Miami, as it once also appeared in Havana.

The plot weaves its serendipitous way from the old woman's tale to Cecilia's present-day life, from Havana to Miami. Through this technique, Chaviano metaphorically expresses the unceasing dance of longing felt by all Cubans who have had to uproot themselves in order to find a freedom denied to them by an oppressive regime.

There are many wonderful characters in this book, and I felt so sad at letting them go at the end....which means I will definitely re-read this novel in the future, probably in Spanish once again.

Each of the three families originated with a love story, and I thought the most poignant ones were those of Mercedes and Amalia. 

The first one was especially moving, as it clearly depicted the power of love to make everything new and miraculous. It also showed how that same power enables someone to see the real self hidden in the heart of a person considered an outcast by the rest of society.

Amalia's story is no less moving for its irony. She is a biracial child, yet her parents oppose her relationship with a young man from another race. Again, the power of love overcomes all obstacles, and thus Amalia becomes part of this fascinating family saga.

One real-life character is also present in this novel -- Rita Montaner, the famous Cuban singer and actress. I love that Chaviano included her in the plot, and thus, paid homage to a woman who was obviously a great soul. It's a lovely homage, too, as Rita vividly comes to life, and acts as an earthly guardian angel to some of the fictional characters.

Another reason I love this novel is the setting, since I happen to live in Miami, Florida. It was so great to find familiar landmarks and places mentioned in the book! This actually made me feel as if I were Cecilia, and were living through each of her unusual experiences. Of course, I also felt as if I were sitting at that table in the bar, dreamily listening to the old woman's unfolding tale, as Cuban boleros played in the background.... 

There are humorous touches in this magical book, as well, such as the already mentioned curse. One of Cecilia's friends, who calls himself "La Lupe", after a Cuban singer of recent years. is very funny. Also, one cannot possibly forget "Fidelina", the parrot who screams out popular Communist slogans, to the constant dismay of her owner, who lives in Miami, and is worried about what her neighbors might think. Through this comical parrot, Chaviano effectively satirizes the Cuban dictator the bird is obviously named for.

One might get the impression that Chaviano's interweaving of past and present, with several characters taking their turn upon the stage, would result in a chaotic, confusing read, but the opposite is true. The author seamlessly connects the secondary stories with the main one, and she does it in beautifully flowing prose, effortlessly leading the reader along, until everything comes together to form a perfectly harmonious whole at the novel's conclusion.

Magical, enthralling, enchanting...this novel is a mesmerizing tapestry of the Cuban experience, told by a literary master. It is the quintessential Cuban novel. It is also the story of my heart and soul, as it is the story of all of us born in that magical, eternal land of eternal love... However, I would add that it's a universal story, as well, for the longings of the heart are frequently, as well as  inextricably, enmeshed with the threads of a country's history, whatever country it might be.

This novel is an unforgettable, powerful experience. While much of that power is, to some extent, lost in translation, there's still plenty of it present for the discerning reader with an open heart and mind.

Daina Chaviano

Online Links

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Book Review: The Wonder of All Things, by Jason Mott

The Wonder of All Things
Jason Mott
Trade Paperback, 304 pages
Mira Reprint Edition
July 28, 2015
Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction, Magic Realism

Book Synopsis: On the heels of his critically acclaimed and New York Times bestselling debut novel, The Returned, Jason Mott delivers a spellbinding tale of love and sacrifice

On an ordinary day, at an air show like that in any small town across the country, a plane crashes into a crowd of spectators. After the dust clears, a thirteen-year-old girl named Ava is found huddled beneath a pocket of rubble with her best friend, Wash. He is injured and bleeding, and when Ava places her hands over him, his wounds disappear.

Ava has an unusual gift: she can heal others of their physical ailments. Until the air show tragedy, her gift was a secret. Now the whole world knows, and suddenly people from all over the globe begin flocking to her small town, looking for healing and eager to catch a glimpse of The Miracle Child. But Ava's unique ability comes at a great cost, and as she grows weaker with each healing, she soon finds herself having to decide just how much she's willing to give up in order to save the ones she loves most.

Elegantly written, deeply intimate and emotionally astute, The Wonder of All Things is an unforgettable story and a poignant reminder of life's extraordinary gifts.

My Review

One of the joys of reading literary fiction is the beauty of the prose style. Jason Mott's writing in this novel is absolutely beautiful, flowing, poetic, and full of wonderfully vivid details. The setting in The Wonder of All Things is the fictional town of Stone Temple, which is located near mountains, and Mott masterfully immerses the reader in this beautiful natural locale.

The plot revolves around Ava, the daughter of the town sheriff, who has suddenly developed the ability to heal physical ailments. She first discovers this when she unknowingly heals her best friend, Wash, after a tragic accident at a carnival air show being held at the town.

Mott deals with several themes in this novel, such as the ethics involved in Ava's healings and their concomitant effects on her health,  coming of age, facing tragic losses, the heady power of first love, the questioning of spiritual beliefs, the responsibilities of parents and siblings, and the underlying themes of the book -- the fragility and sacredness of human life, as well as the power of memory.

Mott deftly interweaves all of these themes through the interactions of his characters.

Ava is still struggling to accept the loss of her mother, whom she vividly remembers, and is resentful of the presence of her father's new wife, who is unfailingly kind to Ava in spite of the child's obvious hostility toward her.

Macon, Ava's father, is caught in the middle, and, at the same time, has to deal with the growing problem of Ava's sudden fame, which brings hordes of people into the town.

Carmen, Macon's second wife, has regrets and fears of her own, which she tries her best to deal with, pretty much by herself.

Reverend Isaiah Brown is perhaps the book's most complex character. He leads a church, one of several that have descended upon Stone Temple as a result of the appearance of what Brown sees as the miraculous. He also has a brother, Sam, who is a heavy responsibility for him, and for whom he feels unfailing love. Their relationship is a very poignant one.

Then there's Heather, Ava's enigmatic mother, who only appears in the story in flashbacks, which are Ava's memories of her. Through Heather, Mott gives a certain sense of foreboding to the novel. 

I love the relationship between Ava and Wash. They are constantly bantering with each other, each also constantly concerned about the other. Wash's healing has taken a terrible toll on Ava, and she is taken to the hospital. Wash is always there for her throughout her stay in the hospital, with his interminable, funny, discussions of Moby Dick, which succeed in lifting her spirits.

Ava is the more outgoing of the two; Wash is shy with everyone except her, and is a dedicated reader. Their contrasting personalities work well together, though. He supports her in everything, and she, in turn, confides in him completely. 

There's a dreamlike quality to this book, as the plot gradually moves along, with no sudden shifts or twists, the way people and things in nature grow. While I enjoyed this at times, I did wonder, at other times, just where the plot was heading. I was expecting more dramatic events, more healings, more personal confrontations between some of the characters. For instance, I couldn't believe that no one in Ava's family actually told the public at large that Ava couldn't commit to more healings because doing so would undermine her health. People who only knew her as "The Miracle Child" thought that she was actually being selfish in keeping her gift to herself, and that she had a duty to help humanity. Why didn't either Macon or Carmen at least explain things to Reverernd Brown, who had more personal contact with them? I must admit to some disappointment in this regard.

Another disappointment, one that is nevertheless a necessary part of the story, is Macon himself. Although he does love his daughter, he puts her health at risk by allowing, even encouraging her, to perform more healings. He seems to be more concerned with trying to improve the family's financial situation than with the debilitating effect of each healing on Ava. Ironically, it's Carmen, Ava's stepmother, who fights to protect Ava from having to carry out these healings. It's Carmen who is worried about Ava's health, Carmen who notices that the child is growing thinner. Still, she does nothing to enlighten the world about Ava's condition.

Interestingly, Mott includes another disappointing father in this novel -- Tom, Wash's father, who had abandoned his son due to his own inability to deal with his grief after his wife's death. When he returns to Stone Temple, it becomes painfully clear that he's not a fit parent for Wash. 

It's the mothers in the book -- and one grandmother -- who come across as truly nurturing, truly patient and loving with Ava and Wash. Heather, Carmen (although she could have done more for Ava), and Brenda are true heroines in this respect. Heather, unfortunately, was unable to be completely there for Ava, but she did try,  even in the face of her own unhappiness. That's more than can be said for Macon.

In spite of these objections, I do think that this is a novel worth reading, for its gently poetic sentences, for the slice of life in a small town which is a microcosm of the grand themes of existence, and, most of all, for its tenacious insistence on hope, in spite of all the tragedies the characters must face.

In short, Mott has penned a book that will long stay with the reader, a haunting, poignant memento of the truly important things in life.


About the Author

JASON MOTT holds a BA in fiction and an MFA in poetry both from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and is the author of two poetry collections. His writing has appeared in numerous literary journals, and he was nominated for the 2009 Pushcart Prize. In addition to the rare achievement of receiving starred reviews from all four of the top publishing industry magazines—Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews—The Returned was named a “People Pick” by People magazine, and was featured in Essence, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Post, among others.  Mott also appeared on numerous broadcast programs including NPR’s All Things Considered and Tell Me MoreThe Travis Smiley Show, the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Radio Show and many local television shows across the U.S. Mott lives in North Carolina.