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 further 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.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.
The Mortications is a story of a Cuban family; mother, father and two children in the 1980’s. The mother, Soledad, flees with her two children, Ulises and his twin sister Isabel, to Hartford, Connecticut. Soledad is fearful what may become of her children if she does not leave immediately. The father has joined the rebels against the Cuban government. The Mortifications is a telling story of each of the family members discovery and rediscovery of themselves. The prose is rich and full of detail. The life path of the characters seems to mirror the beauty and struggles of Cuba.
This is not typically a book that I would reach for, but I was interested enough to request it for review. It is a rather slow pace, but it is beautifully written. It isn’t like most immigrant stories in that there’s no struggle to adjust to life in a new land, but rather a family realizing they can never escape the shadow of their past and the Cuba they left behind. There’s a letter that arrives in the middle of the story, and everything that happens after this seems fairly predictable. But that doesn’t hurt as the beautiful prose and great characters make for a moving read.
“They’re talking as if nothing’s happened, Soledad said to herself, and the jealousy ran from her ears into her heart, where it settled into her aorta and reshaped itself as longing and desire, the kind of want that makes one capable of poor but magnanimous decisions.”
This definitely aspires to be real literature. And I can forgive most of my issues with the novel, since the author didn’t stretch it out into a thousand page chore to read. At three hundred pages (with generous spacing, font, etc.,) it is a day or two read. I enjoyed it; I felt like the author had a message that was important to him, but it was a difficult, meandering, multifaceted message. Personally, like another reviewer wrote, it kind of fell apart for me toward the end. I got some out of it, but some of it (mainly Isabel) was lost on me, and she seemed pretty unbelievable during the last half of the novel. Maybe that could have used a little more fleshing out; a little more description of her inner monologue to make it ring true. But still, I’m thankful he kept it short–it had the feeling of a long short story, which is way better than feeling like a novel that drags on.
Over all i liked this book and the plot. I loved how it shows the difficulties of the life of immigrates and how thy survive every coming diificulty. With a great prose, this novel was wriiten really beautifully.
Derek Palacio was born in Evanston, IL, in 1982 but grew up in Greenland, NH. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Ohio State University. Palacio’s work has appeared in Puerto del Sol and The Kenyon Review, and his story “Sugarcane,” was selected for inclusion in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013. He is the co-director, with Claire Vaye Watkins, of the Mojave School, a non-profit creative writing workshop for teenagers in rural Nevada. Currently, Palacio lives and teaches in Lewisburg, PA, where he has completed work on a novel about a small Cuban family struggling to remain whole after fleeing the island as part of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. He is currently working on a collection of short stories relating to Cuba’s past, present and future.