Derek Palacio's stunning, mythic novel marks the arrival of a fresh voice and a new chapter in the history of 21st-century Cuban American literature.
In 1980 a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación - father, husband, political insurgent - refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife, Soledad, takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami's familiar heat, Soledad pushes farther north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.
Each struggles and flourishes in their own way: Isabel, spiritually hungry and desperate for higher purpose, finds herself tethered to death and the dying in uncanny ways. Ulises is bookish and awkwardly tall, like his father, whose memory haunts and shapes the boy's thoughts and desires. Presiding over them both is Soledad. Once consumed by her love for her husband, she begins a tempestuous new relationship with a Dutch tobacco farmer. But just as the Encarnacións begin to cultivate their strange new way of life, Cuba calls them back. Uxbal is alive...and waiting.
Breathtaking, soulful, and profound, The Mortifications is an intoxicating family saga and a timely, urgent expression of longing for one's true homeland.
In a modern magical realist style all his own Derek Palacio's debut novel is a brilliant story.
It's hard to know what to expect from a debut novel, though Palacio has produced short stories and a novella in the past, so he's no novice. This debut novel blew my mind.
Right from the first sentences I was aware this was going to be a good one. I'd seen reviews elsewhere giving high star ratings but the reviews suggesting there were faults. I kept waiting for something to go wrong - nothing ever did. It's a beautiful story and Palacio doesn't miss a beat.
The style is simple and I find it hard to put my finger on exactly what makes this book so great but the simple prose is part of it. Palacio's style follows in the steps of great Latin American magical realist authors before him, though this lands more on the realist side of the scale. If you've read and enjoyed magical realist authors in the past I'm confident you'll enjoy this one as well. It's a compact version of the style, not winding out into generations as some do, and it's set in a more modern era than most, beginning in the 1980s.
I also have a great deal of praise for William DeMerritt's narration. Spot on. It's always wonderful to have a truly great narrator paired with a truly great book. More than icing on a cake, the narrator can make or break a novel. DeMerritt makes it.
If you enjoy magical realism, if you enjoy literary fiction this is for you. Don't be put off if you don't usually read either of these categories. A story with a Cuban setting (it moves between the US & Cuba) is a rare find and if it piques your interest, dive right in. It's a very accessible novel and a highly enjoyable one.
This is one of my favourite reads of 2016.
If you're interested in some of my other favourites for this year I recommend Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Denis-Benn, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell and The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney.
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