Wednesday, 18 June 2014

So Far From God by Ana Castillo

Tome is a small, outwardly sleepy hamlet in central New Mexico. In Ana Castillo's hands, though, it stands wondrously revealed as a place of marvels, teeming with life and with all manner of collisions: the past with the present, the real with the supernatural, the comic with the horrific, the Native American with the Hispano with the Anglo, the women with the men. With the talkative, intimate voice and the stylistic and narrative freedom of a Southwestern Cervantes, the author relates the story of two crowded decades in the life of a Chicana family.
Publisher's description

On the face of it in this account of the lives of Sofi and her four extraordinary daughters magic realism meets tv soap opera. In chapter one the baby La Loka dies, rises from the dead and flies up to the church roof. Fe, another daughter is dumped by her boyfriend and screams for weeks. Caridad, daughter number three, is attacked, mutilated and left unconscious.  Esperenza, Sofi's eldest daughter, eventually breaks up with her boyfriend, who has got into Native American religion. Then at the end of the chapter Sofi's long-absent husband reappears and Caridad and Fe have miraculous recoveries. Beat that EastEnders!
The book continues like this. Each chapter is like a mini story, a fact reflected in the chapter headings: Chapter 1's was An Account of the First Astonishing Occurrence in the Lives of a Woman Named Sofia and her Four Fated Daughters; and the Equally Astonishing Return of her Wayward Husband. 

The tone of the writing reflects this rather folksy approach with Spanish words and phrases slipping in among the English, the regular use of double negatives and similar. This is meant to make you feel as though Ana Castillo is sitting with you and telling you the story. But I am afraid that the style at times confused this English woman. I found myself trying to work out what was being said (this was particularly true of the double negatives), which has the opposite effect to the one the author intended.

Soap opera is an interesting comparison for this book. The best soap operas (in the UK at least, I don't know about those in other countries) actually tackle complex and difficult subjects. This book certainly does just that. Feminism, environmental issues, big business exploiting poor communities, the worth of women's communes - all feature in the book. 

The magic realism in the book is on the face of it typical Latin American magic realism - La Loka flying through the air for example - delightful magic without obvious roots. But look closer and you will find roots in both Chicano myth and religious symbolism. The names of the key characters are chosen carefully: Fe - faith, Esperanza - Hope, Caridad - Charity. What happens to the daughters is that they have their faith, hope and charity abused. The book seems to have an ironic take on how Christianity is interpreted. Both Caridad and La Loka are regarded as saints by local believers and in the final chapter Sofi sets up and becomes the first president of an organization called Mothers of Martyrs and Saints. 

Despite the veneer of Christianity, the old religions and beliefs are still very present. La Loka regularly sees and communicates with a strange blue woman near the stream. Sofi identifies the woman as La Llorona: Who better but La Llorona could the spirit of Esperanza have found, come to think of it, if not a woman who had been given a bad rap by every generation of her people since the beginning of time and yet, to Esperanza's spirit-mind, La Llorona in the beginning (before men got in the way of it all) may have been nothing short of a loving mother goddess.

This is a really interesting book to read alongside the Latin American magic realist classics and one which deals with themes that greatly interest me and I think will engage other readers too.
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