Latin American literature is famous for the genre of magical realism, but this was really only “magical” (and how I wish I meant that as a euphemism for “good”). It blends myths and concepts of magic from the Spanish, African and Chinese cultures that contributed to making Cuba, placing this hybridised concept of magic even in present-day Miami, which could potentially be interesting, but in this book it’s not.
To be honest, most of this book is not interesting. As the blurb will tell you, the novel begins when reclusive Cuban emigrant Cecilia is dragged out of the house by two male friends who she ditches to meet an old woman, Amalia, at a Miami bar. The book is made up of short chapters that alternate between telling Amalia’s entire family history and Cecilia’s very boring, mundane existence.
Basically, Cecilia is a journalist and she is investigating some ghost house, since apparently she works for the kind of publication where a ghost house is a valid idea for a story. She gets involved in a lot of kooky New Age stuff and she also, at some point, meets a guy (Roberto) who is a rich businessman who just can’t stop talking about his successful business and also, all the businesses he will open in Cuba once his profit-minded family can return. Cecilia doesn’t even like him that much but she’s devastated when he dumps her, to the point that she develops a psychosomatic illness that she is able to banish just by willing her blood pressure to go down. Hmmm…
Amalia’s family history is more interesting, but still not that great. The characters aren’t very well realised; they mostly just kind of blur together and I had to keep referring to the family trees in the first few pages because I just could not remember who had done what, or even who was who. Also, guess what, (almost) everyone was a successful small business owner. It was very unrealistic.
So we come to the other reason I didn’t like this book – in addition to the badly realised characters, the awkward pacing, and so on, it was kind of right-wing. When early on it talks about shortages (Cecilia’s musing that she’d never had hot chocolate in Cuba), the US embargo goes unmentioned. Later, you have the clairvoyant Delfina claiming that the failure of the US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion will be the greatest tragedy ever to befall Cuba, you have one of the small-business-owning (actually by this time, franchise-chain-owning) characters whingeing that he supported the rebels and don’t they understand that private property is sacrosanct… blah blah blah blah blah. Over the entire book, Cecilia alternately conceives of Cuba as hell or else a once-beautiful country trashed and burned by criminals. This is frustrating. Mostly, it’s just so damned shallow. I’m not trying to say it shouldn’t have criticised Castro’s regime at all – the pettiness making emigrants wait years for their exit permits, the stifling of dissent, persecution and harassment of dissidents etc. are all important – but any analysis of Cuba that states that the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion was the greatest tragedy ever to befall Cuba is just trash. I mean, it’s also a book largely set among the Cuban emigrant milieu in Miami written by a Cuban emigrant, so maybe I’m expecting a bit much from this politically. But like, there is left-wing criticism of the Castro regime and there is right-wing criticism, and I wasn’t expecting this book to be so far to the right (the blurb makes it seem pretty apolitical).
So. Ultimately this is a kind of boring book that serves as a lament to the losses of the old Cuban bourgeoisie, and I did not like it. Unless you have no choice (like you find yourself in an airport where the bookstore has nothing except copies of this?), avoid.