“Ulises considered the history of his mother’s sex life: he assumed that, since they’d arrived in the States, she’d not been with a man until Willems. That was five years of physical famine followed now by two months of feast.”
When Soledad flees Cuba and her husband’s revolutionary ideas with their two children, rather than settling in a familiar place like Miami, she chooses the brutal cold of Connecticut. Ulises assumed they would make a ‘large, loud Cuban family’ together with his mother’s distant cousins in Miami. Soledad instead will purge her old Cuban life, even speaking Spanish only to each other but English everywhere else. To shed her life, what better place than somewhere cold? She flourishes here but cannot seem to forget her husband, Uxbal Encarnación. Isabel too clings to the memory of her father, who has faded in Ulises mind, after all his father took far more interest in her, planting ravenous hunger for meaning, leaving her consumed by a religious fervor. When their mother Soledad falls for the Dutchman Henri Willems (horticulturalist) she tells her son ‘He’s a very confident man, and when he talks about tobacco-I don’t know- it’s ravishing.” While different from her husband, the tomato farmer rebel- Henri is like ‘the best version of the love of her life.” Uxbal is like a ghost in the house, never fully out of their lives, a shadow between the love Henri and Soledad share, but Henri will have her anyway. Their lives in New England alter them in different ways, sending each in strange directions. Ulises doesn’t remember his father nor cling to his memory as his mother and sister do, but he fears his fate is tied to him, that he will ‘assume his identity’ as sons do. His father, a man holding nothing but his ideas, a man who lost his family because of his faith and revolutionary leanings. Henri Willems serves as a stand in father, one Ulises emulates in learning about tobacco. But he has his own superstitions tied into beliefs his own father had, ‘I’ve inherited my father’s fear, Willems said, but also my grandfather’s constitution.’ Ulises sees in this that no man truly escapes his father. Isabel’s religious beliefs will change everything, taking her further away from her mother and brother. The convent is calling to her soul, God becoming a wall keeping her family out. Isabel is losing her daughter, who believes herself to be chosen as a sort of guide to the dying. Soledad goes along with much of what Isabel wants, the only way to keep her. It isn’t long before she herself flees, and the abandonment a wound in her mother, who is fighting a new battle herself, with her health. Is life coming full circle? A letter finds them, becoming as solid as the presence of Uxbal himself. Cuba is calling them back, and where is dear Isabel?
The story begins as a fresh start, a twist in fate through escape but one can never truly bury the past nor sever the ties of the heart. Uxbal is inside each of them, and more than anyone the seeds planted in Isabel seem to rot. Everything she believed about her father, all the ideas she clung to may be destroyed. Everyone is broken. The story leads up to the return to their homeland, and the journey is peculiar. Tracking Isabel, Ulises finds seduction and trouble but he also finds family. “Fate is family, and family is fate.” What is love, what is family? The story changes and becomes rich when Ulises is in Cuba again. These are people who make a multitude of poor choices and mistakes. Their passions, be it rebel camps, farming, God,lovemaking, orgiastic encounters… all seem to pull at them and like a hurricane leave behind destruction. So much is shrouded in secrecy, but all secrets beg to be revealed, every past will rise and in the end, Ulises might just learn it’s better to give solid ground to history rather than camouflage the past. Isabel frustrated me, and it made her more real for her madness, because in a sense her religious hunger does verge on the insane. Her character made me think about how other people can lead us so far from where we should be, how ideas can be implanted (even accidentally) and take on a life so far from what should have been. Was she fated to this higher calling truly? Oh how moments manipulate us! Soledad is a passionate woman, her fleeing Cuba and Uxbal was the path to finding her own strength- but one has to wonder the sort of adults Isabel and Ulises would have become had they never fled. It is necessary to sink into the story and pay attention to every small moment, as much as the big things that happen. It is about culture, because whether you shuck it or embrace it, your beginning will always cling like a second skin. Your roots still nourish or poison you, it’s all in how you chose to go on.
Immigrants live in two worlds, one of their making and one of the past. The homeland is alive in dreams, memories and even strange new places can have reminders. Sometimes those reminders are in objects, tastes, smells, and often even new people. You don’t have to return home, to see it still. We never return to that time, every place and person changes in our absence, but it can still call to us. The Mortifications is about how one family clings to their homeland even when trying to purge it, how it changes them, and what happens when your blood longs to return to it’s origins. There is heartbreak and many strange choices, I spent a lot of time thinking about every character. Cuba is a family member in it’s own way too. The Encarnación’s are all over the place, and their choices have many traps. The ending hit me between the eyes a bit, because it’s so odd yet just right because I can’t imagine a simple ending for such passionate people.
Publication Date: October 4, 2o16
Tim Duggan Books