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Book Review: The Mortifications by Derek Palacio (3/5)

19 Dec

Here we have yet another Midwest Literary Walk buy, this time from 2017. I was doubly interested in Palacio’s story because it focuses on a Cuban family and Cuba is one place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. I was happy to finally nab this one on audio.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Mortifications by Derek Palacio

Summary from Goodreads:

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.

I read enough Hispanic literature that I should be ready for the magical realism that’s normally present but it catches me by surprise each time. There was a sense of detachment in the narration emphasized by the 3rd person omniscient voice. It almost felt like the narrator was making up the story about characters he’d invented instead of telling a story about people he knew. The story covered a lot of time and the detached voice let the jumps happen smoothly. There were parts that were unbelievably magical and others that were starkly realistic. They contrasted well and I kept my interest in the book, but I never felt as engaged as I wanted to be because of the underlying unbelievability of the story.

Ulises felt very real and I was glad he narrated the story. Soledad felt real as well but Isabel and Uxbal were almost larger than life. Isabel, in particular, was hard to wrap my head around because I didn’t know if she was an angel. I kept expecting her to do something impossible that would give me a final push over the edge. She kept me on my toes and I always wondered what it was she was trying to do because every decision she made seemed out of character for the person I thought was being developed.

Henri was my favorite character. I felt his love for Soledad and the pain it caused him to see her suffer and to feel he was being pushed away. I think he realized he could never replace Uxbal but he was going to try his darndest for as long as he could. He was very industrious and a good step-father for Ulises, even if he never legally had that title. I think it bothered him that Soledad wouldn’t marry him though I don’t remember it ever coming up.

Soledad was the most relatable character for me. She was very hardworking and a little bit emotionally distant, two qualities I see in myself. I am very much a ‘nose to the grindstone’ kind of person and that quality can keep me from being intimate with more than a handful of people. I related to Soledad’s laser focus on providing for her children, even at her own expense. I think she wanted to let Henri into her heart more, but her focus on Isabel and Ulises prevented this.

Derek Palacio
Image via the author’s website

Isabel’s time in Cuba was the most interesting to me. I don’t know if I particularly liked it, but it kept my attention. Her behavior seemed to be almost self-destructive and I wanted to take care of her because it felt like she wouldn’t care for herself. She changed a lot during this time, giving up all her vows and realizing a lot about her father and changing her relationship with him. I was so interested to see what would happen to Isabel that I lost interest in Ulises.

Soledad’s illness was hard to read about, mostly because I liked her character so much. I couldn’t bare for anything bad to happen to her and hearing how her body deteriorated and her mind changed was hard for me. She had been so strong and she didn’t know how to be weak. After dedicating herself to her children, she didn’t know how to lean on them. It was trying to read.

The audiobook was narrated by William DeMeritt and I thought he did a great job. From my ear, he had a good pronunciation of the Spanish words (though I’m not as well versed in a Cuban accent so I can’t speak to that). He kept a rather dark tone through the book but I think that was appropriate for a book with as much tragedy as this one.

Uxbal pulls strings throughout the book well before he appears in person. Family isn’t something you can forget about or leave behind easily. It’s inside you and a part of you. Isabel struggles with that for much of the book. A promise made to her fanatical father in childhood chased her into her adulthood and wouldn’t let go. Soledad couldn’t forget about Uxbal, especially with Ulises who looked so much like him at her side. Family sinks its teeth in and never lets go.

Writer’s Takeaway: Sometimes, you need things to work out magically for your story to work. Magical realism is one way to do that and this is a good example of minimal magical realism in a way that barely feels like a tall tale or coincidence. It was just the right amount of magic and reality to feel fantastical but also feel like it could happen to you.

I enjoyed the book but failed to connect with it in a meaningful way. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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