Taína: A Novel by Ernesto Quiñonez

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By this time the air had gone flat in Taína’s life and it was her mother who answered all the questions.

Spanish Harlem, fifteen year old Taína and songbird of young Julio’s heart, is a virgin… a pregnant virgin! She tells everyone, “maybe some angel entered the project”, impregnating her. She has never been with a man, no way! Her mother Inelda (Sister Flores)  would never allow such a thing, and she tells the elders at her Kingdom Hall of Jehova’s witnesses as much, it’s not even possible because she is always present, she is the all seeing eye in her daughters life, besides God, of course. No way would they go to the hospital, subjecting Taína to such an intrusion (examination) to prove her virginity!  Instead, they resign themselves to a sort of imposed silence in public, “The two women were living in a universe of two, and it seemed that not even the crowds could disturb them.”  Julio wants the feeling Taína inspires with her singing, angelic in and of itself, able to make people weep, “so I could hear love.” How different Taína is in person, with her foul mouth and fury. What is the shame that happened? The shame people speak of that marks Inelda as a bad mother? Why is Taína’s beauty suspect, why do social workers come to their door, ignored like everyone else?

One thing is certain, Julio is going to sneak his way into Taína’s life, one way or another! He will keep visiting her door until he is let in to her home and heart. Let the residents of “Spanish Harlem” believe the worst, believe in some tragedy, he will chose instead to believe in Taína, even if he makes a fool of himself, it’s a tale worth believing. Who hasn’t been a fool for love, eh?

This passion will have Julio visiting a prison to question a dangerous criminal, teased mercilessly at school for being ‘crazy’ (and not just for believing in Taína’s angelic conception), wasting money on offerings for the forthcoming miracle baby, and getting caught up in crazy schemes for money, maybe even dealing in posh dogs. Sneaking out at night, after his parents fall asleep,  he meets El Vejigante who tells him “Many people don’t know me because old people are invisible”. This strange man wearing an old, fading satin cape may just be his ticket into Taína’s good graces. He is the once famous Capeman, keeper of the night, his name is Salvador but just who is he to Taína and how  he can help won’t be known until their next secret meeting.

Julio is a good boy, but good boys can do questionable things when they think it will help another. What if his mother takes him back to the psych ward, because of his visions which are tied into Taína, solidifying his belief in the miracle of her pregnancy? He tells the reader, he believes he is free to make choices and “but I would be held accountable for my choices”, still he would not turn away from her as the church has, even if his mother demands it. Even if he promises to stay away from her, his inner universe of belief won’t let him.

There is a challenge of loyalty, Inelda and Taína need the help of Peta Ponce, “she is known all over”, an espiritista (spiritualist) but it takes money to get her to come to them, money they do not have surviving off WIC checks and this… this is where Julio comes into play. Inelda isn’t the only woman of the project they live in to use Peta Ponce’s services, but that’s a whole other fork in the story. What sort of magic can this woman practice that leads Pureto Rican women to have more faith in her than in actual doctors? Sal knows, but he isn’t forthcoming with answers to all of Julio’s questions. One thing the reader knows is, Julio doesn’t know much about anything. Through the story, many secrets of his own mother’s past comes to light, as does Taína’s mysterious tale and if it makes him feel ‘paralyzed with happiness’ just to be in her presence rubbing her swollen pregnant feet, who are we to question it? It’s time for Julio to figure out his hustle, to be the man and savior she needs.

The novel veers off her and there, meandering through other characters origins and their pasts, like Peta Ponce, Salvador, Inelda, Julio’s mother and father. There is magical realism, poverty, multicultural flavors, coming of age as a misfit, the difficulties Puerto Ricans face, Julio’s visions, “Whom I saw was my mother. I saw her dreams, I saw my fathers dreams too. They were trampled and unfinished.” It’s a strange novel, Julio is both oblivious and hyper-aware and it leads to all sorts of confusions for the poor boy and his family, some run ins with the police. Even so, maybe be can be their salvation. Maybe we will get to the bottom of Taína’s miraculous pregnancy. Sometimes I lost the plot, but it’s a decent book, it just needed some containment, it runs off a bit with the telling and characters. A unique story, the cover is fantastic.

Out Today! September 3, 2019

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

 

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