Book Review: Byobu

Byobu

Byobu, by Ida Vitale (translated by Sean Manning) is structured as a series of short vignettes that take the reader inside the head of the eponymous protagonist. The episodes recounted are often playful but also poignant, offering insights into how Byobu sees himself and the effects he has on others. He lives alone but is not a loner, aware that his inability to recount amusing anecdotes can lead to boredom in any audience he secures. He prefers his days to be predictable, following habits, even when he recognises they do not make best use of his time.

The book opens with a musing on what makes a story and how, when told, they will roam free, ‘like a lightening bolt no lightening rod has grounded’. The reader is then offered a description of a typical day in Byobu’s life, how he makes choices yet often gets sidetracked, time passing due to his ‘habitual indecisiveness’. We learn that he ‘loves the sun’ yet seeks shade when it shines. He claims to be continually seeking ‘how to be more’.

Thus the reader gains an image of Byobu’s character. From here we are taken through some minor events that he has experienced and what he thought as they were happening. They mine the mostly everyday but demonstrate how thoughts are wont to wander.

“Often, distracted by some minutia captivating him at a particular moment, he misses fragments of conversations that later turn out to be important.”

Most of the short chapters are easily understood, relatable or likely metaphors. Some, however, are more opaque. I remain unsure what the author wished to convey in The Race.

One chapter relates the fate of Byobu’s generational home, which he valued highly. When potential structural faults started to cause anxiety, his life became intolerable. He found it easier to accept loss and move on than live with the gnawing unknown.

I enjoyed the anecdote about the wife who, realising her husband didn’t listen when she spoke, came up with an entertaining means of regaining his attention, of trapping him in his rudeness, thereby forcing him to admit he was in the wrong.

Another chapter detailed Byobu’s discomfort when he found himself on a bus amidst a gathering of deaf people who were chattering away happily with their hands. It offered a powerful reminder of how the deaf may feel if alone amongst the hearing.

There are thoughts on: resistance, rebelliousness, order to be found in personal actions, boring others and being bored.

The final chapter muses on what are, or perhaps are not, original thoughts. I was particularly taken by one of these short summaries.

“Poetry seeks to extract from its abyss certain words that might constitute scar tissue we are all unconsciously chasing.”

There is much within these pages to ponder, yet each chapter deals lightly with what are deeper concerns. That the author has drawn them together in such an entertaining way is impressive. An engaging but also lingering read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Brickmakers

Brickmakers

Brickmakers, by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), is set in small town South America. It focuses on two families with patriarchs it is hard to like or empathise with. They become sworn enemies for reasons that appear to offer an outlet for self-entitled anger – a desire to provoke and enjoy the reaction – more than anything that makes more sense. The damage wreaked by their feud leads to tragedy in the next generation.

The story opens with two young men dying from stab wounds. As they lie in the mud by a fairground there are recollections from their past lives. The reader learns how their fathers and mothers met, why they married, how they treated each other and their children. The lives portrayed are of men wanting sex without responsibility, money without having to settle down to steady work. The women appear to accept this shiftlessness in their menfolk. Having read the author’s previous work, Dead Girls, I pondered if this was part of the culture of the area. The fathers beat their children yet expect loyalty. The mothers try to hold the family together without expecting much material help.

Fun for the young people is found around bars and dance halls with alcohol and sex a feature from a young age. The fecklessness of the young men appears to be expected although they somehow regard themselves as better, more deserving. There is cruelty amongst rival peers for amusement, a goading for momentary and selfish pleasure.

The reader knows from the start how the story will end. What is being told is how two young men ended up in this situation. It is presented as a common outcome given where and how they live. The violence depicted is not confined to people. Shocking animal cruelty, while not surprising, was challenging to consider.

The tale unfolds in short chapters. The prose is taut and engaging despite my dislike of the protagonists across both generations. While it was hard to feel sympathy given how the men act, the setting evoked demonstrates how limited life can be for those born in this place who choose to stay.

Although somewhat depressing, the author skilfully draws the reader in to lives riven by emotional and physical violence, alongside a lack of wider ambition. She offers a window into a culture I found disturbing by being deemed acceptable by so many.

An impressive but not entirely enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Occupation

Occupation

“I told you … about my desire to expand, to go beyond my own petty dramas. To go beyond those beloved people surrounding me, too, to examine others and contemplate their abysses”

Occupation, by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), is once again narrated by the author’s auto-fictional alter ego, Sebastián. In his rightly lauded previous novel, Resistance, the author focused on Sebastián’s parents and siblings – their shared memories and personal mythologies. This latest work is more outward looking while still offering intimate yet clear-sighted observations of family, along with several others the narrator comes into contact with. Some are dealt with briefly while a handful are revisited over several chapters as the tale progresses.

The story opens with two encounters while Sebastián is out walking with his wife. A man in a wheelchair and then a young boy ask for favours. Both want something from Sebastián and he finds himself unsure how to react, unsure how his wife wants him to behave. He fears that making the wrong decision could be his ‘ruin’. This concern – that he could become ‘not a man, merely the ruins of one’ – gains focus from his interactions with the aged and displaced.

The setting shifts regularly to a room occupied by Sebastián’s father who is in hospital and gravely unwell. Chapters focus on how Sebastián now views this man he has known all his life, who has been changed by time and illness.

“That man existed only in photographs, it was he who was guilty of the fate of this other man now pinned to the bed”

While his father approaches the end of his life, Sebastián and his wife are trying for a baby. He mulls what it means to occupy a body, not just with illness or the effects of poverty but also pregnancy.

Sebastián seeks out migrants as part of his research for his planned book, visiting those living in an abandoned tower block that houses the homeless in challenging conditions. He tries to tell their stories in their voices but recognises he is only capable of seeing them through a personal lens. Nevertheless, he empathises with their plights and desires, recalling his own family history.

“Like my family, every family has, if we go far enough back in time, countless displacements in its origin. All humanity is made up of this incessant movement, and it only exists in the way we know it thanks to these displacements.”

In the background, during this time, the reader is made aware that the political climate in Brazil is deteriorating. The narrator may despair of the ‘imbecility of the rulers of the day’ but still believes ‘literature will remain beyond any occupation’. All has happened before, somewhere, and will likely happen again.

“violence against the other is a violence against ourselves, doomed to destroy each of us and all humanity”

Despite some of the more bleak observations, somehow these musings come across as uplifting. Sebastián’s father is still there behind the shell of a body he must now occupy. The migrants taking over another building, preparing it for new occupiers, are forward looking. Sebastián and his wife face challenges but do so together.

Structured in short chapters, the tale told is humane and succinct. The writing is taut yet close to lyrical in places, philosophical and deeply personal. What comes to the fore is the difficulty of understanding human reactions and their affects. In trying to delve deeper, Sebastián offers his readers a chance to contemplate issues – those that cause change through the passing of time and the numbing caused by familiarity. He pauses to step back and consider, enabling the reader to do the same. Thoughts and observations are all the more powerful for the the clear language in which they are conveyed.

Like its predecessor, this book was a joy to read on so many levels. Thoughtful and penetrating, it is a tale for our times.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Elena Knows

Elena+Knows

Elena Knows, by Claudia Piñeiro (translated by Frances Riddle), tells the story of an epic journey that takes place over the course of one day. The journey recounted is epic not in scope but in effort expended. The titular protagonist, from whose point of view the tale is told, is an elderly woman suffering from advanced Parkinson’s. Her ability to move her limbs relies on the careful timing of medication.

Opening in the morning, as Elena takes her second pill, the difficulties she faces doing a supposedly simple task such as putting one foot in front of the other are laid bare. She is sitting in her kitchen waiting for the prescribed chemicals to take effect that she may walk to the local train station, five blocks away. She must catch the ten o’clock train if she is to reach her destination.

“Today’s the day she’s going to play her last card, to try to find out who killed her daughter, to talk to the only person in the world who she thinks she can convince to help her. Because of a long-ago debt, something almost forgotten.”

Elena’s daughter, Rita, was found hanging from the church belfry. Investigators concluded she committed suicide. Elena knows this can’t be how she died as, on the day in question, it was raining. Rita harboured a fear of lightning and refused to attend church on such days after she learned of its lightning rod. Elena believes she knew her daughter better than anyone else.

Mother and daughter had a tempestuous relationship.

“They fought as if each word thrown out were the crack of a whip, leather in motion, one of them lashed out, then the other. Blistering the rival’s body with words. Neither let on that she was hurt.”

Nevertheless, now that Rita is dead Elena is grieving in her own way. Despite the many difficulties she faces, Elena mostly eschews any help offered, especially by her daughter’s boyfriend, a man Elena despises, appearing to resent that they had a relationship.

“They were two hopeless creatures, two losers in love, or not even, two lonely people who had never even entered the game, who had contented themselves with watching from the stands. As far as Elena was concerned, it would’ve been more dignified at that point for her daughter to abstain from playing altogether.”

After Elena completes the train journey she must travel a further distance to reach a house she has been to only once before, twenty years ago. She remembers directions and a front door but does not have an address. She must then confront Isabel, who lives there, and call in her debt. To continue to function Elena will need to take her third pill on the way.

Throughout the arduous journey, Elena remembers episodes with her daughter, including how disgusted Rita became by her mother’s failing body. There is no shying from detail in the depictions of a Parkinson’s sufferer. As well as difficulty controlling movement, Elena is now permanently stooped. She cannot cut her thickened toenails or remove her dentures. She leaks urine and cannot wipe herself after using the toilet. She constantly drools, including into her food, turning it to paste before she can eat it. Rita was her carer and didn’t hide how the personal tasks she was forced to carry out sickened her, as did the way her mother smelled and looked.

The denouement provides a change of pace after what was a poignant if challenging reveal of the mother-daughter relationship. It asks questions about the ownership an individual can have over their body given the effects of such issues as: illness, duty, domestic abuse. The determination Elena displays in travelling across Buenos Aires played out differently when Rita was younger. Rita herself had a lasting impact on Isabel. Their stories provide a shocking reminder of treatment women are expected to accept from those they look to for care or support, even when well intentioned.

The writing is taut and affecting, with a depth that develops slowly but lingers beyond the final page. In the Afterword, Fiona Mackintosh adds context – how the culture in Argentina, including the dogmas of the Catholic church, loom large and resist change.

I could not warm to Elena, especially when considering how she treated Rita – a doctor’s appointment is particularly traumatic. Even so, the depiction of age and infirmity cannot fail to raise pity – and fear for their own future – in any reader.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Havana Year Zero

“I’ve always noticed that writers and artists are seen as unique beings with exceptional lives, as if they spent their whole time entertaining great people and talking in capital letters about profound, elevated topics. That’s OK by me, but I’m surprised that scientists aren’t equally valued. Very few people think about scientists; yet behind everything we touch, however ordinary it might be, there are hundreds of brains who worked on its creation, because science is a collective endeavour”

Havana Year Zero, by Karla Suárez (translated by Christina MacSweeney), tells a story from 1993, when Cuba was reeling from the impact of international changes – the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union. At this time, Havana suffered regular power cuts and interruptions to mains water supply. Food was scarce and residents banned from many activities, including travel outside the country. The narrator, Julia, is a mathematician who gets caught up in the search for an elusive, historic document. If found, it could prove that the telephone was invented in Cuba by an Italian, Antonio Meucci. Julia initially seeks scientific recognition and national pride. Others on the trail hope for more material rewards.

Julia is looking back on this time from the future, telling a story of the friends, lovers and colleagues she worked with to try to uncover the document. Although known to each other, this group of scientists and writers retain secrets that Julia gradually discovers. The twists and turns are further complicated by the bed hopping enjoyed. When life has been shorn of many pleasures, sex proves a welcome if complicating distraction.

Julia remains close to the man who became her supervisor at university and with whom she had an affair that impacted his marriage. She refers to him in the narrative as Euclid – characters are each given a pseudonym to protect their identity, she explains. Julia first hears of the inventor, Meucci, at a dinner party where an author – she names him Leonardo – talks of writing a book on Meucci’s life and work. It turns out that Euclid is familiar with this story and knows of the existence of the document. He recruits Julia as his assistant in tracking it down.

Other variables in the problem to be solved include Ángel – an out of work man who, unusually for Havana at the time, lives alone in a spacious apartment. Julia falls in love with him – or perhaps it is his apartment – and dreams of moving in. Ángel welcomes her attentions but has unresolved issues to attend to that could thwart her plans and must be carefully navigated.

There is also Barbara, an Italian tourist visiting Cuba on the pretext of bringing Leonardo information on Meucci, promised by her colleague who is prevented from travelling. As an outsider, Barbara has valued currency and permission to purchase items the locals cannot access except through the black market. She takes her new friends out to dinner – a welcome change from their diet of rice and split peas – supplying them with decent rum and other goods regarded as luxuries.

Julia moves between Euclid, Leonardo and Ángel, trying to work out who knows what of where the document could be. She is hampered by Havana’s lack of reliable utilities – particularly that working telephones are rare. Oh, the irony.

Leonardo is eager to talk of his writing so from him Julia learns more of Meucci, as the author shares with her his research for the novel he is writing. She also learns of the final factor in the equation – Ángel’s ex-wife, Margarita, who left him to move to Brazil. The three men in the equation have a history of broken marriages and other family issues that pull on Julia’s heartstrings. She desires justice for those who have been wronged, including herself.

“My problem is that I have no family traumas. I had a happy childhood, no one abandoned me or stopped loving me.”

“growing up in that sort of environment causes real problems because it makes you too structured.”

Thus Julia sets out to help her friends and herself. New facts come to light that change the focus of her endeavours – as happens in science. At times she feels like a puppet, at others the puppeteer.

“Numbers are mental constructions that mathematicians use in an attempt to define the properties of and relationships between everything in the universe. Authors did something similar, but with words”

The structure of the book is that of a mystery, within which there are complex entanglements and much dark humour. There is a strong sense of place that offers a lesson in living with only basic amenities and supplies – in close proximity to wider family. My only quibble with the language employed is the occasional direct address to the reader – the narrator asking “Do you get me?”, “Do you see?” – which I found jarring. Aside from this, the tale remained engaging with elements of surprise that added depth.

An enjoyable tale that develops gradually but never feels slow, all detail adding to the final interweaving of threads. The author writes with skill and verve – credit to the translator. Fun but never frivolous, this was a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Theatre of War

Theatre of War, by Andrea Jeftanovic (translated by Frances Riddle) tells the story of an immigrant family living in South America whose lives are shadowed by the lingering effects of war. The story is narrated by Tamara, a young woman looking back at her childhood. During her early years she lived with her parents and two older siblings. When her mother and father separated she lived for periods of time with each of them. Her father appears to have suffered PTSD brought on by his own childhood experiences in the troubled Balkans. His shifting moods crater his young family, passing on lasting psychological problems to the next generation.

The story is structured as a sort of play in three acts, with each scene a memory conjured by the narrator. Characters play their parts – roles assigned by Tamara and viewed from her perspective. Thus we do not get to know the other cast members’ thoughts or feelings. They exist only in how they affected Tamara.

“We rewrite each other’s parts. We bring our characters to life.”

The story opens with the family moving house – something that happened repeatedly over several years. What possessions they acquired would be crudely packed, abandoned or sold – with little warning or explanation. There were regular periods of neglect and hunger. Tamara’s few positive memories revolve around her siblings, particularly her older sister.

The mother is remembered as screaming at the father, having an affair and then leaving. Rarely does she appear happy, making herself ill with medication until hospitalised. In one dark period she rejects Tamara entirely.

The two older siblings were born of a different father to their sister. This effects how the parents treat them at times but does not change how the three children regard each other.

The father suffers regular nightmares. In trying to protect Tamara from the causes, he instills curiosity but also a barrier to questions she feels she cannot ask. He recoils from blood, creating issues when his daughter menstruates. He comes across as doing his best for his family but with broken tools.

As the ‘play’ progresses we learn of Tamara’s sexual encounters and attempts at forging relationships. Her lack of anchor due to her troubled childhood results in drifting, avoidance, and then loss.

The tale is of Tamara and her experiences but also much more. Scenes portray her recollections but build into a powerful account of damage wrought by parents unable to provide what their child requires. As it is narrated by a grown daughter, there remain questions about reliability of memory – was a doll abandoned or sold, did the family members ever feel love or joy, what of the spaces and interactions that are not explored. Words are spoken and parts played but from Tamara’s point of view this was never enough.

“Someone hugs my neck, kisses my toes, pokes me in the abdomen. We look distractedly past one another, engrossed in our own roles.”

The writing is visceral and succinct, the tale dark and raw but told in language that is affectingly evocative. It offers a piercing reminder that the damage caused by war is not confined to immediacy or direct aftermath, and that family conflict can also destroy.

An abiding story that had me pondering how many of our relationships are acted out, and how much we can ever know of the impact we have on others – including those we love. A recommended read.

Theatre of War is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Ramifications

Ramifications, by Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney), is a story narrated by a psychologically bedbound thirty-four year old man. He is trying to deal with pivotal events that occurred when he was ten years old by writing down his memories of the time and the effect they had on him. Set in the Educación neighbourhood of Mexico City, the boy’s life changed when his mother, Theresa, left the family home one lunchtime during the summer holidays, never to return. The boy’s father did not explain to his two children why she had left, although the elder child, fifteen year old Mariana, may have understood better. The strength of this tale is the depiction of the emotions and concerns of a ten year old boy – how the lens through which he sees his world is insular, imaginative and self-centred.

The boy’s interests include reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and he enjoys the idea that, if faced with challenges, he could become an admired hero. As his mother leaves during the school holidays, when the boy’s best friend is away from the city, he fondly imagines how he will share what has happened to cast himself as a figure to be revered by classmates. When Mariana is tasked with looking after her brother while their father is at work, the boy meets her teenage friends including Rat, a person he equates with risk and influence. He conjures impressive scenarios from the ether that he looks forward to recounting. What actually transpires is a journey that forces the boy to confront how unlike the hero of his imagination he actually is – an unmasking with negative and lasting impact.

The boy is also attempting – and failing – to create objects using origami. He becomes obsessed with symmetry and how rare it is under close observation. These distractions do not cover the damage caused by his mother’s defection. He cannot articulate, or even fully recognise, what is happening to him. It is only from his bed in the future that he will try to unpick events and how they stymied his development.

The writing style is perfectly pitched and structured to offer fascinating glimpses of a past life that may now be influenced by hindsight. The reader is made aware early in the tale of key moments, of resulting difficulties, yet there is always some new aspect to reveal. As the narrator digs deeper into the cause and effects of his parents’ actions, his ten year old self is presented in a light few writers I have read could master. It is a reminder to adults that children are not just smaller versions of themselves.

The story drew me in from the beginning but acquired impressive depth as it progressed. Its power is all the more admirable for its brevity, accomplished with no compromise to the richness of language and affect. So much of this resonated, leaving much to ponder. The denouement provided satisfying completion whilst allowing the reader to imagine beyond the final page.

It is books such as these that make me want to read more translated fiction. Another fine offering from a quality publisher that I heartily recommend.

Ramifications is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Dead Girls

Dead Girls, by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), investigates the unresolved murders of young women in the author’s home country – Argentina. Focusing on three girls murdered in the early 1980s, it is shocking although, sadly, unsurprising.

“Being a woman meant being prey.”

The author interviewed family and friends of the deceased, adding in her own experiences of growing up in a provincial town at a time when even phones in homes were rare. With few broadcast TV channels, news was mostly local. The author found this suffocating. Nevertheless, she felt mostly safe. The society she lived in chose not to acknowledge known incidents of domestic violence. It was drummed into her that if she dressed in a certain way, spoke to strangers or stayed out late she could be raped – and it would be her fault for putting herself in that situation.

The writing style is fragmented, jumping between investigation and informed opinion on each case. Lists of other unresolved murders of women are included. Femicide is far from unusual.

“My friends and I were still alive, but we could have been Andrea, Maria Luisa or Sarita. We were just luckier.”

Almada’a personal history is interwoven with her research into the dead girls’ lives – a reimagining of their last days. She uncovers horrific tales of gangs of boys raping individual girls with impunity, and of older men paying for a young girl to have sex with. The accounts are searing and disturbing although never voyeuristic. Life is not portrayed as happy for anyone mentioned.

An interview with the brother of one of the murdered girls highlights the arrogance of men in the country. This does not lead to any sense of fulfilment – several suicides are mentioned. Certain family members chose not to meet with the author, preferring to put what happened behind them. Others agreed to a visit then appear to have rehearsed what they were willing to share.

There are elements of the narrative that I found odd – perhaps a cultural difference. The author regularly consults a psychic – as do other characters featured – and gives credence to what is said.

That aside, this is a clear-eyed and compelling account of a journalistic investigation into murders for which no one has been punished. That they are a drop in an ocean of similar cases makes for a chilling read.

Dead Girls is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: A Musical Offering

“When a child first learns to hum a melody, the child stops being music and instead becomes a receptacle for remembering it.”

A Musical Offering, by Luis Sagasti (translated by Fionn Petch), is a challenge to define. It tells numerous stories but in short vignettes that weave into and around each other – a sort of counterpoint style of writing. Its frame is music and the effect various pieces have on a variety of listeners. As with a new musical composition – however enjoyable – it is not until the finish that it may be fully considered and appreciated.

The opening chapter explains why Bach was commissioned, by a Russian Count, to compose what became known as the Goldberg Variations. In the twentieth century these gained a wider audience thanks to recordings made by Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. The importance of the length of the silence between each variation is explored as is the circularity of the work.

The discussion segues into the story of Scheherazade. I had to look up who this character was – she is a storyteller in the collection of Middle Eastern tales brought together in One Thousand and One Nights, often known in English as the Arabian Nights.

There follows a series of reflections on lullabies, then the music of the Beatles. This is the first of several threads that weave in contemporary culture and historical figures. The work of artist, Jackson Pollock, is included.

By the end of this first chapter, the structure and style of writing had been established but I was unconvinced that the stories being told were worth pursuing. Early on certain similes and opaque suggestions had grated.

“an extraordinary harpsichordist who not only is capable of playing anything that is put in front of him but can also read a score upside down, like a rock star playing a guitar behind his back”

“the slower pace of the later version is that of someone who knows we only leave a circle before taking the first step”

I was also irritated by the assumption that the reader would recognise and understand references to people and artistic endeavours. As well as Scheherazade, I had to look up Virgil and Dantes to puzzle out their inclusion. I pondered if the author was writing for someone better read than me (whatever better read actually means).

There were, however, thoughts being shared that I enjoyed despite their sometimes tenuous conjunctions.

“Every mother carries a Noah’s Ark in her womb (after all, there are forty weeks of gestation and forty days of flood). We’ve all been the animals in the Ark before descending to the earth.”

The second chapter delves deeper into how silence is perceived and completely hooked me. The discursions teased out fascinating accounts of people’s behaviour. Revered art is depicted as merchandise – investors driving up price then storing the work in a warehouse. The tales of two of John Cage’s musical compositions – 4′ 33″ and ASLSP – are as bizarre as they are brilliant to share. It is pointed out that there is never true silence if we pay attention.

The tale of The Great Organ of Himmelheim had me checking if it was true – not that it mattered given the joy of considering why such a thing would be built.

A poignant chapter on music in a time of war again kept me fully engaged. Man is capable of such atrocity yet also beauty.

As well as sharing interesting stories, the author philosophises on wider issues. I enjoyed his thoughts on sending music into space. I also learned about the wood used by Stradivarius – why it was special. I didn’t look up if this factoid was true – by now I was engrossed in each of the digressions and interested in how they would be brought together. The denouement adds an element of circularity to all that has gone before.

After my initial concerns I was drawn into this work and thoroughly enjoyed reading each interwoven tangent. Fact and fiction may have been blended – I remain unsure – but it has been done to impressive and immersive effect.

A Musical Offering is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Holiday Heart

“By this point, Lucía knew that her argument was falling apart, that the things she was saying were only distantly connected to what she’d read. She simply wanted to say them, and it seemed like a good opportunity to do so.”

Holiday Heart, by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe), is the story of a crumbling marriage. It opens on Miami beach where Lucía and her young children – twins, Rosa and Tomás – are watching the Fourth of July fireworks. They arrived earlier in the day to spend a fortnight at Lucía’s parents’ holiday apartment where they will be looked after by Cindy, an American of Cuban descent. Lucía and her husband, Pablo, are Columbian immigrants – educated and financially successful but hankering after an elusive satisfaction in the life they lead.

Pablo has recently suffered heart issues which brought to light his infidelities. He remains at their home in New Haven, recuperating. His actions, though, are secondary to resentments that have been bubbling to the surface for years. Pablo and Lucía goad each other with both their silences and conversation. They try to be good parents but neither of them truly enjoys being with their children.

“She wondered if giving birth to a child and just abandoning it to its fate – whether as the decision of a Spartan parent or out of necessity or tradition – would hurt less than giving birth to it only to neurotically monitor the area surrounding it every day: that diminutive, infinite space filled with dreadful and uncontrollable dangers.”

Pablo, a teacher, is writing a novel. Having read through the manuscript, Lucía accuses him of yearning for his homeland – something she regards with derision. The reader is offered snapshots of his past through interactions with his wider family. For them, making a life in America is regarded as a success in itself.

Lucía writes a column for a magazine in which she is highly critical of her husband, claiming artistic licence when Pablo complains. He feels that he lost her when the twins were born and Lucía took the reins in how they would be raised. On holiday at Miami Beach, the children have more fun with Cindy than they do with their mother. She views the friendly young woman as trashy but is jealous of her easy affinity with the youngsters, especially Rosa. Both Pablo and Lucía are critical of many aspects of demeanour they observe in other immigrants.

“His shirt is tucked in and he wears a blue suit jacket that screams cheap. Bad taste in clothes is the last sign of an impoverished background to disappear. Sometimes it never leaves. Almost all of the high school teachers are of Latino descent: they are the sons and daughters of technicians, plumbers, maids, supermarket cashiers. Getting an education, unlike their parents, doesn’t make them any less rough around the edges, if anything the contrary.”

The key lives portrayed are brimming with dissatisfaction making this a rather bleak tale to engage with. The writing style is taut and flowing but neither Pablo nor Lucía elicit sympathy – their actions appearing foolish and weak. I was left curious as to the veracity in terms of the immigrant experience: if assimilation creates a disconnect, if expectations can ever be met. Pablo ponders the life his unmarried aunt, Lety, has chosen for herself, unable to understand how she can be content when her job is running a launderette. It is, perhaps, because neither Pablo nor Lucía can find the joy in what they already have that I struggled to empathise.

A well structured and written tale but not one I especially enjoyed reading. Maybe the insular and stifling reflections of the privileged characters were not the best choice for me given current lockdown economic concerns and restrictions.

Holiday Heart is published by Charco Press.