The Pursuit: A Novel of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates

46045807._SY475_.jpg

Here is the mistake: to have given into happiness. She will be punished now.

Abby had hoped that becoming Mrs. Willem Zengler could save her, the damned, the cursed. Is it possible to cup happiness in both hands and drink from it? When she closes her eyes to sleep, it is always there, the bones, the horror. Love can’t chase that away, nor could protection. It always finds her, and the past won’t let her go. As a new bride she steps into traffic, maybe she was sleepwalking? She seemed so agitated! Witnesses saw something wasn’t right, her face one of horror, fear but of what? As if she were being chased.

Her husband Willem doesn’t understand, he must remain at her bedside in the ICU. What will he say if she wakes up? What if she strode into traffic by choice? What does any of this mean? He is gut sick, worse, he keeps playing back their meeting in his mind. The possibility that she has lied about her life disturbs him. This disorientation, it’s happened before, hasn’t it? He remembers too the restlessness, the whimpering cries while she was asleep, dreaming. He vowed to protect her, that is his role as her husband, but now as she lies comatose, the proof is he has failed her.

What of that parent-less past doesn’t he know? She doesn’t want to tell, she doesn’t want him to pursue her fears, her dream, her terror. She is both the victim and the perpetrator, in her memory. She carries an entourage of skeletons, she was so young, but it’s her fault, isn’t it? In order to be free, she must stop running from the nightmare. It is a ruined house, her entire childhood, a ruined house. She doesn’t want to be that orphan again with a tragic past, a past that is rotting somewhere, still undiscovered either in her mind or the tall grass, or both. What would Willem think?

She has been trying to keep herself together, to be the right sort of woman, but her happiness as a newlywed is blurring, the poison of her past is bleeding through and there isn’t an escape, not even in a handsome, tall husband. There is no shelter, no escape from the pursuit.

She is not who she professes to be, she is not fully present, and she can’t fake it anymore. Life always circles back, the past comes back for you, how like a ring.

This is a fairly short novel considering the many books I have devoted my days to reading by Oates. She has an intuition about the things we don’t talk about or present to the world, and writes about them like no other, so I am always delighted to read anything she puts to paper. This is a fast read, and you are in the confusion, the terror of Abby’s mind before the “accident” and tormented by the ghosts of her past as if you are in her shoes. It’s very much about the effects of trauma. How unfair, the things we’re forced to carry behind us, like a rotting corpse. Some childhoods aren’t about frolicking in the fields chasing butterflies, at least not in Oates world. Here children are left with blood on their hands.

Publication Date: October 11, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Mysterious Press

Advertisements

Toil & Trouble: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs

43263491.jpg

It takes extreme horror for me to feel better about my own life. Which, now that I think about it, is what people are always telling me that I do for them, so screw it.

Augusten Burroughs has a innate cynicism that always makes me laugh or cringe and nod along with, yes- someone gets it. You don’t have to be a fan of witches,  broomsticks and cauldrons bubbling to enjoy this memoir. You can be a fan of love or disaster, old beautiful houses that ‘want your blood’, and look haunted. Maybe it’s not ghosts, maybe it’s old trees that is a looming threat or repairs and gruff old handymen. There are a million things that can haunt our lives that are scarier than monsters and ghosts but sometimes the very things that make up our chaotic little lives get us to the place Augusten has arrived. But it’s been a journey. So carrying a secret love of witches or not, most of us can relate to the struggle of just being alive.

A witch, you say? Let him explain to you what he means before you get a knee jerk reaction of laughter or disbelief. Let him tell you about his family, and strange occurrences that feel like so much more than happenstance. Whose life isn’t full of the strange… the unexplained… and hell- why not? It’s hard to be taken seriously when you try to explain the weird patterns, the ‘coming into things’ that you foresaw, or conjured in your mind, heart. Aren’t mothers sometimes uncannily wicked in their predictions, about the future of their children, why not his mother before her illness consumed her? Lucky for you if it’s good stuff, the reverse can be true (trust me) for most people it’s a combination of both. I long to say, “you’re mad!” but in a good way, with a fat smile on my face. Maybe more than anything, he pays attention to the details of his life where so many people never see the synchronicity in their own.

Much of the novel is about the home he bought with his beloved, “We have purchased a mystery” and anyone who goes gaga for old houses will get a kick out of the reality making a home of one can be. It makes for funny and exasperating shared moments, all this talk of dreaming the home into being. Why not? If we can think it, we can create it, it’s how great works of art come into being, inventions, movements, revolutions- why not our own wants and desires?

I think this memoir is about Augusten Burroughs being Augusten Burroughs, this is me- take it or leave it. It’s intimate, honest, and peculiar, just like him. He seems to be at a point in his life where he has a solid grasp on who he is and want he wants, and sure life still presents moments where anxiety overwhelms him, he still confronts mental health fears with his family history, but you know what a great stabilizer is? Someone who loves you and grounds you, someone who takes you seriously when they need to and doesn’t always think ‘it is your crazy talking’ when you are adamant about a looming threat, even if it’s as ridiculous as a monster tree… when you know that tree is an evil force out to kill the two of you! Because maybe it actually is, maybe there is something to this natural instinct that has guided Augusten throughout the chaos of his life. Who are we to laugh at that? Who are we to demand proof of the things that pull someone through this ridiculous little journey we call life?

Whether you believe in magic or don’t, it’s still a fun read. It felt like sitting and talking with an old friend, someone I can tell spooky stories with beside candlelight or share the eerie, inexplicable things that have happened in my life (that others would call downright nonsense) stuff requiring a person to suspend disbelief, and have them say “No way, me too!” or “Get outta here, really?” Be it reading about a retired opera singer “The Soprano in the Woods” who is a little too close for comfort, or his response to PETA when it comes to Beavers (have you watched them attack), I was fully engaged. In fact, I am glad my husband and I never did find that beaver we were hoping to see in New Hampshire many summers ago- violent little creatures (cute though), who knew?

Take it with a grain of salt, or a circle of salt around your witchy self, your choice. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

St. Martin’s Press

 

The Girl at the Door: A Novel by Veronica Raimo

42360876

“After the girl came to see me, I couldn’t get rid of her presence in the house.”

Utopian islands can be just as corrupt as the imperfect, filthy, declining societies people long to escape, all it takes is a germ in their midst, but is the germ a false accusation or a rapist?  Miden and it’s citizens must never transgress against their rules, their society runs on adherence to it’s beliefs, and what’s a bigger violation than the accusation of rape? This act is a stain that can spread and destroy this perfect world. Here they live in a blanket of security, peace after the mysterious “Crash”, something happened in the larger world, and though ‘the worst is over’, according to politicians, it is Miden that “SHE” ( first just a tourist) tells us she wanted to live in, to be safe from the threat of the outside. “He” (the successful professor)  was already a citizen with ‘a prospect of a solid future’ when they met and fell in love.  Miden, where they are obsessed with statistics and the best place for “Quality of life”, encompassing “trust in the future, social equality, human rights, etc” but the most telling for this story is its supply of  “women’s freedom”.

The novel opens with “She” answering the knock of a visitor at their door, who asks her “Are you the professor’s wife?” 

“She” the girlfriend, doesn’t yet realize the enormity of what this former student, this skinny, pretty young girl is about to reveal. Pregnant with the professor’s child (carrying his very future in her belly), how does she face the ugliness of what this stranger is accusing him of, what it will do to this sheltered life they live, that they worked so hard for? Certainly the man she loves isn’t capable of such things, and why now? It was two years ago, in the past, right?

“Because I didn’t know then. Now I know.”

What is a crime, how do we come to understand that we have been a victim? What if youth was a blinder, and we didn’t know how sorely we were being wronged? What if the awakening to the crime happens when the wisdom of a few years sheds light on it? Is it then still a crime? Do crimes have an expiration date? Do people get to escape punishment because time was on their side, because someone didn’t know better how to protect themselves, if they didn’t realize what was happening at the time?  Is it a crime if someone met with you willingly, if you allowed it, didn’t have the sense to prevent it, to say no? What if it becomes a crime in the telling and others examine it and help you see the ‘affair’ framed darker? After all, she was a ‘young student’, isn’t that crime enough? Her youth, his position of power as her teacher?

Through “Him” it’s a wildly different story, from the very act of saving her panties ‘for months’. For “Him” it was a wildly erotic time and he can’t believe the ‘Commission” and most especially his girlfriend is taking any of this seriously. The absurdity of it all! This could cost him his enviable life in Miden, his very relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, his future! To him it was an affair (in the sense it goes against the student/ teacher rules, a sordid thing), ‘wrong’ sure, but an affair, not anything violent or criminal.

Who do we believe? With the accusation “She” goes back and chews on their relationship, from their first meeting to the pregnancy and everything in between, as if picking for clues for or against his character. “She” has a bigger role in the entire investigation, in whether he is ‘unworthy’ of being a citizen or not, to be banished or not. The accuser, and how “She”(the girlfriend) is irritated, annoyed by her, curious about her behavior, looking for ‘theater’, almost as an escape out of believing the worst about”Him” or as evidence of his innocence. This is a provocative moment in the novel. If you attribute it to our current news, wonder at the women who stand by their man, why, why the anger is often aimed at the alleged victim, it begins to make sense. It also lends people insight into why in some cases women wait, until they are adults, until they are braver- to take the steps to search for justice. On the flip side of the coin, what about the men? Are they monsters, are they guilty if in their head they are reading the situation, the acts completely wrong?

This is an engaging novel, but Miden itself sort of got in the way for me. I didn’t see it as a Utopia personally, the people came off as holier than thou, above humanity as trying to strive for some flawless society, I mean- who decides? Then again, what sort of world do we live in now, where people still blame women when they are assaulted? Hmmm… What about cases where there is consent, if you consent, how is a man to know he is hurting you? That is a question people still pick over. Throw youth into the mix, the awe of those in power, shouldn’t someone be reigning in their desires? Shouldn’t it be the person with the power, and yet too we are all humans and flawed. It’s a slippery slope.

What beats in me is the “WHY NOW”… that’s a current question in many cases, allowing disbelief, doubt in the accuser to slip in for many people. There isn’t just one answer.

It’s interesting to me that there isn’t naming of the characters, they remain HIM/HER, the accuser… I don’t know if it’s intended but it’s like you protect all parties without thinking about them beyond their sexual identity (male, female). Then I went off the rails and in my thinking, naming is vital- isn’t it? Particularly if that name is loaded, ‘rich, successful, beloved’ it absolutely alters how strangers look at an accusation. Naming changes things, for good and bad.  The reader feels sympathy for each of them, and disgust here and there. Just who risks the most? There is selfish thought, of course there is, we are the center of our story, anyone that disrupts our security, our future can easily be seen as the guilty party. It was engaging, but Miden was a weird society. You believe each of their views, even if they discredit themselves too.

Publication Date: October 18, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press, Black Cat

 

 

 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World: A Novel by Elif Shafak

43706466._SY475_

The possibility of an immediate and wholesale decimation of civilization was not as frightening as the simple realization that our individual passing had no impact on the order of things, and life would go on just the same with or without us. Now that, she had always thought, was terrifying.

We begin at the end for Tequila Leila, ‘as she was known to her friends and her clients.’ Working, before her sorry death, at one of the oldest licensed brothels in Istanbul she is no longer in her apartment, now she lays dead, vanishing further away from the here and now, ‘inside a metal rubbish bin with rusty handles and flaking paint.’ How did she end up discarded like trash, less than trash? Her group of misfits and best friends  Sinan, Nalan , Zaynab , Humeyra  and Jameelah don’t know yet what has happened, they intend to find out. Her friends, nothing more than garbage themselves according to the country and times they live in, the sole family she has left-at least that will acknowledge her, are the ones left behind to care about what has happened to her, just another dead prostitute to the citizens, but so much more to them. They don’t have rights, they must find a way (of course it’s a crime) to give her a proper burial, they may be her true family, but not legally.

How did you get here Leila? The mind sticks around and soon there is an influx of memories, the earliest is her birth and through that ‘slippery passage’ the transgression that followed against her own mother is recalled. In fact, though this novel is about outcasts, and many will focus most on the transvestite Nostalgia Nalan and Zaynab the dwarf, whose stories are very engaging, it is Leila’s mother, aunt and uncle’s sordid tale that clutched at me. It is here that everything went awry, where the hope for a different sort of life, one free of ‘shame’ was made impossible. Here lies the wreckage, and how my heart broke for Lelia’s mother, all the lies that darkened the family. We learn who truly bears the mark of shame, and it isn’t in Lelia’s decomposing body.

Her first mistake was being born a girl to her father’s second wife, and what are women if not vessels to deliver cherished sons? And if they cannot, well the elders assured Leila’s father that the Qur’an allows a man to have up to four wives. What good are wives who have only miscarriages? God help you, woman, if you are a flawed. This time Binnaz (second wife) took care to heed old wives tales and superstitions, leaving nothing to chance. Yet it is the shock of how she is rewarded for her efforts that has lasting effects on Lelia, who has two mothers. What rights does a second wife have? None. She must be an obedient wife, who is she to complain? No one, nothing, just a mere woman. All Leila’s father Houran wants is for his baby girl (though he desires a perfect son) to one day make him proud, “true to your religion, true to your nation, true to your father.”  But how do you measure loyalty, pride, obedience, and chastity when others are bent on fouling the waters? Just who truly is a shame to their religion, to Allah? Rather than an example of piety, she is a challenge to her father, a thing to be cast away and disowned and surely through no fault of her own.

As her heart ceases to beat she recalls only the lonely child she was. The severity of her father, the odd behavior of her deeply trouble, sad, mentally unstable aunt and the complex relationship her mother had with her. It was a house of whispers, the women controlled by her father’s beliefs, and the simmering anger a confusion to Lelia who is sheltered from the truth.  After a terrible abuse, Leila loses both her family and love….

The streets are mean, it is in the brothels where hustlers bring her to find refuge and here Leila loses all hope of ever being a proper Muslim woman. It is also in this life where she finds her true family, and so begins their heavy stories, no lighter nor happier than Leila’s. These are the people tourists don’t see, and the ones the citizens would rather ignore or use, the disposable women. What happens to Leila is brutal, meant to expose the violence against women, but if you go back, isn’t what happened to Leila’s powerless mother just as violent in it’s own godless way? There is hypocrisy particularly in religious fervor, in the existence of these sinful places that are denied, and her friends lives are heavy, take “Osman” Nalan’s transformation, it is hard to contemplate in a time, place against women. Imagine trying to survive in her shoes.

It’s not solely those born native to the soil who face being subjugated by men. Some arrive there through trickery, as Jameelah’s story has her forced into our modern form of slavery. If you’re not forced into marriage, another brand of slavery for some as Humeyra can attest to , then you’re trafficked like Jameelah. Too, women subjugate each other as much as they uplift. We see this in the hatred between Jameelah’s stepmother and the cruelty Suzan heaps upon Binnaz, because I can’t think of a crueler thing. So while the tight bond and love Leila and her friends have, even despite death, there is shame too between women within this tale.

This is a world where fathers seek spiritual masters, where women are defeated, and being an outcast can end in brutal murder. Where unless you have family, you are buried like a pauper, trash. It’s an interesting blend of family, abuse, mental illness, politics, religion, feminism, society, poverty, wealth -there is a hell of a lot happening here. It’s hard for those of us living in the Western World to comprehend being punished for crimes against us, living in fear of religion. I hate to say this too, but in how men are teased by their elders it certainly fuels the fire, that man feels a push to punish his women… Women still have a long way to go when it comes to feminism, but in other parts of the world, you die for your dissension towards those in power. The filth upon you, put there by rape, is your fault and can never be washed clean. It’s unconscionable. These are places you do not speak up, as you see when Leila tries, look how that ends.

Her friends stories are told, and in fleeting memories Leila speaks but I was far more interested in her as a child. I felt I lost her when she grew up, however her friends fill that hole. They make up the ‘immodest sinners’ of these ‘immoral times’. Still, what they are forced to do is a freedom from where they escaped, lives among the ruins. Elif Shafak gives voice to those never heard, after-all, they don’t exist right?

Publication Date: September 24, 2019

Bloomsbury USA

Happy Like This by Ashley Wurzbacher

46212057.jpg

The rest of her life: looming, open-mouthed. She was heading straight for it on autopilot but couldn’t recall having chosen or engineered it.

This is an incredibly engaging debut collection of stories, which I devoured! My only complaint is it ended too soon, I wanted more. The writing is beautiful, it brings light to dark thoughts, it speaks of the intelligent minds of women and their choices. The happy pink cover betrays the depth of the female characters within perfectly, just like the world does. I do love the cover though, it’s simplicity, it reminds me of doodles in a journal. There is a line in the very first story, Like That Sickness and Health, that shocked my insides, there are mothers like this (some can’t help themselves really and others are a whole other nightmare) “…her mother, for some reason, making problems in the few places in her life where there weren’t problems already-“, I know there are women out there who feel that like a boulder in their stomach. Mothers can make things so much harder sometimes. Sickness as a study, what afflicts one afflicts in some ways all. Ashley Wurzbacher absolutely pins the female psyche in place for perfect study from the start. This has become one of my favorite short stories collection, and I can’t wait to see what this author rustles up in the future. There is something rich about pain for women, these college girls in particular, how they use it or ignore it and soldier on- this is one of the best short stories I ever read. Pain as expression, a language for what we can’t or won’t say. As  Mia works on her dissertation, “A Qualitative Study of the Effects of Factitious Disorders on the Social Lives of College-Attending Females”, she learns more about herself in the midst of these needy, suffering girls and their ‘exaggerated symptoms’.

What does happiness look like? Ambition? Love? Women make choices, sometimes just to feel moments, not to erase what already is. Not everything has to build and intensify, though often they do grow out of our control, these desires. In Happy Like That, Elaine tries to understand her dead friend’s secret affair. How she misses Lillian’s raw honesty, her ‘ease’ that Elaine longed to ‘soak up’. A friendship of opposites, the sort that pulls at you to judge the world less harshly.

I was absolutely charmed by Like This American Moon, “the foreign girl is coming”, it smacks of expectations and the ridiculous assumptions so many make about foreigners, more so when you’re stagnant and haven’t seen anything of the world. Take heart! Those of us who have been abroad and visited by family from other countries know full well over there, wherever there may be, hilarity over how they imagine Americans are can ensue too. Americans aren’t the only ones making outlandish assumptions, though we do make an art form of it. How does author Ashley Wurzbacher manage to tickle me with her characters humor and at the same time knock me senseless with sorrow? Some people never go anywhere, not because they are lost in a swamp of ignorance but because they are forced into a limited existence, so often born into it. You can love a way of life, even while you are dying inside. I think twelve year old Jean has a lot figured out before her time, and largely due to the disappointment adults dish out to her, I warmed to her fast.

I can’t crow loudly enough to do this collection justice, it’s not just for the women, though it is about them. Is it the world breaking us, or are we the ones doing the breaking of our own spirit? It depends on circumstance. To be young again and desperate to understand just who you are now, who you are going to be, to feel the rush of first moments like love as if it’s bound to cleave you in two, how do we figure out anything? When do we? How do we get to a point where we fizzle out, or lack ambition? When do we get scared of all the dangerous things that can happen, like Robin in The Problem With You Is That? Why must women so often be the villain, forced into taking a stance to keep others safe? This isn’t a collection about what women are supposed to be, marching together in perfect harmony cocksure about life and their place in it, oh no- these are women who haven’t figured things out, or young girls hungry for identity or sick with expectations and wanting to curl up in the comfort of illness. Women who are just trying to keep people safe, or life together, or figure out what direction the wind is going to blow them next time. Age isn’t the identifier of wisdom, a young girl can be shrewd in the assessment of where she stands socially in the world. She can understand her damaged father more than her mother, who long ago left. Women are wise creatures, but we are a bit faulty sometimes and maybe it’s because the world demands so much of us. Hell yes, read this collection! I have a new favorite author!

Publication Date: October 15, 2019

University of Iowa Press

 

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson

42123790._SY475_.jpg

The body fails and falls. But the body is not the truth of what we are. The spirit will not return to a ruined house.

Frankenstein re-imagined for our strange times. This novel is a shared narrative between Mary Shelley in 1816 as she gives birth to her creation of Frankenstein and modern day Dr. Shelley (Ry) who is transgender “a start-up (or is it an upstart in my own life)” who works for a cryogenics company attending the Tec-X-Po on Robotics in Memphis, Tennessee. Ry is there to interview Ron Lord (dealer of sex bots) and Ry tells us, “to consider how robots will effect affect our mental and physical health”. Claire is a ‘venue expert’ serving as Ry’s guide, but keep your eye on her, this is the last place you’d expect religion to enter. Soon enough we are sitting beside human scale ‘sex dolls’ while Ron convinces us that it’s a modern convenience, even good for couples because let’s face it folks, women lead busy lives now and men get lonely. It’s disease free, far safer than human beings! Barbie for grown ups! It’s the market of the future! Real, fake, is there a difference in the modern world? But humans as uploads?

The story takes us back into the past with Mary Shelley, where it’s far more interesting wondering about the mystery of life with Percy, Lord Byron and his physician Polidori, and mistress Claire (Mary’s step-sister). Here, another creature is given birth to, old world style when Mary pens Frankenstein. Somehow Frankenstein’s monster is less threatening, terrifying to my way of thinking than AI and the high functioning madness of Professor Victor Stein, who declares to all that, “The future is not biology it’s AI.” Just what is his terrifying, freakish theory of evolution? What sort of imagined future has him on a mission? Who better to discuss body parts than Ry, who is fully female, partly male whose love, emotions aren’t defined by either or? Of course Ry falls under Victor’s spell, a love story is born. What is the substance we love? Is it in the soul, the mind, the body? How do we define love? Hell, at this point, how do we define madness, science, religion? Love is it’s own sort of madness, monster, no?  How much can Ry’s love for Victor overlook the horror of his designs? This is modern Frankenstein, where there doesn’t have to be death for humans, where the mind can live forever, become it’s technology.

At times it is incredibly thought provoking, “What is your substance”, are we body, are we soul? What are we, exactly? Is our humanity tied into our souls? Our physical parts? What if modern medicine keeps us alive, with parts that are man-made? Better yet, what if the brain could evolve elsewhere, body no longer needed? Are we no longer human? What if we were only a brain, and everything else was replaced, are we then monsters? What is AI exactly? Could we at some point, were we downloaded, be AI ourselves?

Well what did I just read? I just wanted to remain in Mary Shelley’s world, because there was the writing I loved. I think the future is too bleak for me with Professor Stein. It is meaningful in understanding Ry’s self-creation, but it really went off the rails the further I read. I am not a huge Sci/Fi fan, what kept me reading was Mary Shelley’s intelligence, very much alive in a time where women were meant to be quiet. Quiet like her step-sister who ‘has nothing to say’ beyond what her body does, a woman who ‘sleeps with anybody”. Mary, adamant that the male principle isn’t better than the female nor more active just not subjugated as women are! The men simply ‘indulging her’ and therefore underestimating her. The imaginings of Mary are the beauty of the novel, the heartache too. She knew quite a bit about death, never knowing her own mother who died from birthing complications. She herself suffered miscarriage, death of her living children, so it gives rise to many questions about where the soul goes. Maybe the book began as a game, a challenge, but here I could imagine her writing a catharsis for what plagued her heart.

I have such a hard time reviewing this story because it is bizarre but it had me thinking about the monsters we create, about science, religion, love, our bodies, how we see ourselves and each other. What sex means, how we identify, and the many ways we deny others ownership of their emotions, state of being. One thing I kept thinking, whether the monsters are in the past or modern technology, somehow women always seem to be abused or denigrated. It seems to be one constant. Such a hard novel to categorize.

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press

Taína: A Novel by Ernesto Quiñonez

45835206.jpg

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