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


Brian Joseph said...

Outstanding commentary as always Maria.

This sounds like a such a good book for so many reasons.

The fact that it centered around your culture, and the geographical setting is your home obviously creates special connection with a book.

The parrot sounds like a brilliant touch. Bitting satire is great way to speak out against government oppression.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Thanks for your kind words! I really worked hard on this one!

You're absolutely right -- those two factors have created a special connection with this book. Even though I left Cuba at a very young age (I was 9), and grew up in the U.S., the Cuban culture is still part of me. Obviously, Miami is heavily steeped in it. Just about everywhere you go in Miami, Spanish as well as English are spoken. I LOVE Cuban food (my husband does, too), and the coffee!! Oh, those shots of Cuban coffee!! Lol. As for the music, I lean more toward American music. I LOVE classic rock as well as progressive rock, and also the more modern pop music. However, your roots always remain with you. And I also grew up speaking Spanish at home.

Paradoxically, I've always felt a very strong connection to the cultures of England, Ireland, and Scotland. Chaviano does, too, and that's another reason I like her work. In my case, I know I have Scottish and Welsh ancestors, and maybe Irish, who knows?

This book is beautifully written, as well. The characterizations are masterful -- the people really come alive. And the way Chaviano ties everything together....AWESOME!

A Cuban friend of mine has told me that Isabel Allende and Chaviano are very similar. Perhaps, but Chaviano is obviously extra special to me.

I LOVED that parrot! Yes, this is a brilliant touch! I laughed so hard the first time I read this book!

I highly recommend this novel to you, Brian. Although it's about the Cuban experience, it's a universal story, as well.

Thanks for the nice comment!! : )