This is a short novel but packs a big emotional punch.
The author cleverly weaves the stories of five generations of women, linked by blood and circumstance and by the secrets they share. All the women will be affected by a single book passed down through a family with an affirmation scrawled in its margins. WE ARE FORCE.
1866 – we are in Cuba with Maria Isabel the only woman employed at a cigar factory, where the workers find strength daily from daily readings by the lector after lunch. It could be the national newspaper or by agreement in a vote a classic – a favourite (especially to Maria) being Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables.’ Daily life becomes to be affected by political unrest across the country, and as the sounds of war are approaching and the only option to Maria for escape seems to be marriage and motherhood.
1959 – again in Cuba Dolores has to suffer the outrages of her violent husband, until he is called to arms by Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries in the mountains. Her two children must be protected from the anger and the future threats but young Carmen will not only be witness to the horror of family life but want to leave her home country forever.
2016 – now in Miami, Carmen came with the First Wave of Cuban emigrants, but is now also challenged by the vulnerability of her own daughter’s addictions and seeing in Jeanette the pull back to the past. The secrets that remain in Cuba with her grandmother and clash of culture, money and morals will complete a circle of women forever trying to escape and be powerful enough to survive on their own.
I have visited Cuba whilst Castro was still in power and have no rose tinted glasses about the poverty, ramshackle buildings and lack of freedom that still pervaded the life of many of its people. The author brought the island to life, although I preferred the stories linked to the nineteenth century more than the more recent. However, the descriptions of young Ana seeking her mother in a detention camp and the inevitable danger of crossing borders from Mexico into the USA are both brutal and show no compassion amongst many for the plight of women and children escaping to what they hope is ‘a better life’.
As a personal read I found the later detailed scenes of drug addiction (particularly pertinent to the painkiller epidemics in America) tended to overwhelm the stream of connections to the past in Cuba. Overall the novel emphasises the hard choices mothers have always had to make to protect their children. Often it is not just sons who replicate the trauma of family life and here both good and bad are outlined across many generations.
I think book groups may also wish that the historical part had been the whole novel too, but it will raise thought provoking issues on how modern life and its dangerous attractions to young people (drugs, sex) have to be navigated by mothers for whom their own secrets and upbringing do not provide adequate coping mechanisms.
A dip into Cuban life from crumbling capital La Habana and the beaches of Varadero to the glitz of expats cheek by jowl with desperation in the run down suburbs of Miami. There may only be a small stretch of sea between the two places on the planet but often there has been a huge divide in hope and aspiration between the two populations as this novel clearly outlines.
Review by Philipa Coughlan
Published by Picador; Main Market edition (15 April 2021)
Hardback, ISBN 978-1529031515