Marina’s body, her lineage, had been a battleground, the ways violence had hailed upon our ancestors.
This story brings a Filipino mythical creature to life in an incredibly original way. Eighteen-year-old Marina Salles is strangled to death by a man named Willie on a pig farm, there is no peace in her final moments, her death is torturously painful, but she prays, making an invocation that turns her into an aswang. This author doesn’t shroud the brutal truths from the reader, not the abuses and crimes perpetuated against women and children, nor the rotten choices that put her characters on the trajectory for collision. Murder is not peaceful, it is a violent end and to make it anything less is the real fiction. Aswang are a myth spun to life in Filipino folklore, a monstrous creature, flesh eating shapeshifters who live as women during the day and appear as something different at night. It is the stories the lolas (grandmothers) tell, serving as warnings or lessons, as fairy tales in many cultures do, and each have their own version about the origins of aswang. Though there are three ways to become aswang, for Marina it is her unfinished business with life and family ties (going back to 1742). Why Marina is tied to this creature is explained as we discover her ancestor’s past. The aswang that has ‘passed through the doorway and stepped into Marina’s life’, can now see inside the body, mind and spirit. It is privy to visions, memories, Marina’s entire history, and every feeling she has ever had but the hunger for vengeance against the man who wronged Marina, that is the aswang’s own. What about Marina’s own want, far greater than bloodlust for her killer?
Melissa Chadburn has written about the horrors that most people turn away from. It is unsettling reading about inhumanity, there is a hidden part of our world that is just as ugly, violent, and immoral. It is a true story somewhere, the author tells us this herself. Ignoring it, denying the victims a voice, is to bury the crimes deeper. The world that the ‘throwaways’ exist in is revealed with each turn of the page. Marina wasn’t always lost to the streets, to dope, she once had a mother and father that made her, even if that fell apart. Back we reach into her past. For a time, she and her mutya (mother) live with her lola, in a small house in Seaside. Dazzled by Lola Virgie’s stories and superstitions, she learns about the spirit world. Lola teaches her about all the bad things that can happen, it stays with her always. She doesn’t have memories of life with just Ma, nor her deadbeat dad. Life is secure, if very controlled with her Lola’s lists of how to be, as no one has suffered as much as she has in life. Then her mutya meets a man named Mike, who looks through Marina, and it’s not long before the three of them move to Los Angeles, away from the only happiness she has known, under her Lola’s care.
Time gets harder, food more scarce, her mutya is becoming unstable, coming and going, leaving her alone- it’s a life of poverty. Just when she is back again, unsavory men enter the scene and what follows is a defilement of body and soul. While she is caught up in Child Protective Services, Marina’s one salvation is Alex, her bunkmate and fellow ward of the courts at The Pines. The facility feels more like a prison, a place of burning resentments and pain, luckily Alex is there to show her the ropes. Alex isn’t just a throwaway, her own history is just as dark and full of injustice involving an adoptive mother. As Marina’s mutya fails her, it is Alex who is always at her side. She learns things watching Alex hustle, that would likely break her Lola’s heart on the spot, and this is how life becomes about survival. Like all the children who disappear in the world, Marina is hungry for love and touch. It’s a sad life, but there is light. When she leaves The Pines, she is going to help Alex reconnect with someone special to her, it is her one duty, for the person she has come to love. But once she’s out, darkness fills her empty center. She turns to drugs, and men using her for their twisted desires, if only she can get clean enough to fulfill her promise.
Willie’s own life is purged on the page, how did this man who stores bodies and feeds them to pigs become such an evil villain? What sort of cruelties gives birth to such a monster? It isn’t easy to digest. Somehow he and Marina are tied. Does clarity about his own sufferings distort a call for vengeance?
This is exposure, of life in the underground, which exists outside the bubble so many of us live in. It is about children who never get to live in the light, who if lucky enough to survive into adulthood at all are forced to the streets, walking into the belly of the beast. It is also about women who put their faith in bad men. Mother’s who severely neglect their children. There is so much degeneracy throughout this tale, is it any wonder people numb themselves, sometimes the only escape? Children are the light and there isn’t any excuse under the sky for what happens to victims of violence and sexual abuse. Not ever. I don’t know that I would be capable of mercy.
Publication Date: April 12, 2022
Farrar, Straus and Giroux