Chantel Acevedo’s fourth novel, The Distant Marvels (Europa Editions, 2015), opens as Hurricane Flora barrels toward the coast of Cuba. It is 1963 and our eight-three-year-old narrator, María Sirena, is not at all interested in evacuating, but rather, wants some to be left alone. “Now here, in Maisí, the easternmost corner of Cuba, I am the first to greet the dawn…the light falls across my face when I awaken, and it feels like a blessing.” Against her wishes, she is herded, along with others from the coast, off to Casa Velázquez. The mansion, once grand and the site of regal pleasure, is now decrepit and empty. Carrying evidence of its former brilliance, it has become a container—an apt metaphor for the island-country itself.
María’s father had stayed there as a child when her grandmother served as a governess. “I can’t help think that Augustín’s ghost has touched me,” she says. “I feel my father’s cold palm lying still against my throat.” Once there, the evacuees are treated as if they are on house arrest, left alone and without news of the storm.
Acevedo drops all manner of trouble on María. She recently received a letter and a photo bringing outdated news of her lost son, whom she bore at seventeen during the War of Independence (1898). Previously ignored pains blossom into agony, and when blood appears in her urine, María is forced to acknowledge her own mortality. Meanwhile, one of the most deadly hurricanes in the recorded history of the Atlantic barrels toward her home.
At the Casa Velázquez, the evacuated women tell their histories to pass the time and try to explain themselves to each other. As a young mother, María worked as a lector, reading aloud to workers at a cigar factory, oftentimes launching into stories of her family, calling them little-known fictions. She had for years honed the art of unraveling a tale, but now unpacks her own history as an act of ablution. The set-up holds the promise that in the telling, María will reconsider things she thought she knew about herself and her family. This Scheherazade-like device is familiar, but it works because its use feels natural. The slips into the events of María’s life are seamless, and like King Shahryar, I was eager to inhale each installment.
Outside the mansion, waters are rising and inside, fresh water and food are rationed. The women do not know if they will ever leave or what will be left of their island if they do survive. They all want to make themselves known, but as María is the most skillful entertainer, at their most disheartening moments, the women turn to her for diversion.
María’s story begins in her parents’ time, as her Spanish mother falls for a soldier fighting for Cuba’s independence. María tells of her youth as the child of a rebel, during the Cuban War of Independence. When her father, Augustin, is away, she and her mother are left with an hoteliér—for twelve years. When the father returns, they flee. María’s brutish father will go on to ruin all of their lives for the cause. The mother and daughter suffer several purgatories: in labor at a tallér, in hiding, and later, incarcerated at La Cuchilla, a concentration camp for those who are suspected of assisting the Liberation Army. The reader has the benefit of distance, watching the child become the adult within the framework of constant turmoil.
I remember those April days of 1895, though not as clearly as what came before and what followed. We rode trains to the Oriente province, headed straight to Dos Rios, where the delgados of the movement for Cuban independence were gathering. The trains were overloaded with people fleeing the chaos in Havana. … What I recall is the press of hot bodies, my mother’s arms tight around me, my father’s occasional glare in our direction.
Because her parents were engulfed by the revolution, our narrator is as well. Acevedo offers a wrenching depiction of the conflict’s ancillary damage. María spends the entirety of her formative years in some sort of captivity or another, and her mother, left alone and something of a romantic, falls for every man who is kind to her. We see the evolution of political mindset, such as the shift between María calling her family’s position “patriot” (supporter of an independent Cuba) to “insurgent” (positioned in opposition to Spanish rule). When speaking of the cause, even in reflection, Maria speaks in a poetic tongue, as if to make her words into legend.
I imagined myself riding with the insurgents forever. Perhaps they’d find me a white horse like Marti’s (José Julian Marti, the poet and revolutionary) I thought. One of the insurgents, a man they called El Blanco because of his fair skin and freckles, had a heavy whip that I’d studied from afar. It was braided and glossy, and I longed to carry a weapon like that.
When presenting the negative, the narration is curt, “What I do know, is by the end of that spring, most of the men in our group were dead and missing.” In a similar way, jumps to the “present” of the story are brusque: the evacuees, trapped, hungry and thirsty, may never again see their homes—this information is served up bluntly as if inarguable fact.
The story of the evacuees is told from a narrow vantage. They are together for a short time period, and for most of it are locked in a small room. Acevedo makes us feel the pressure of their confinement by moving these portions of the novel at a slow pace. The historical, saga-like narratives (the parts told in “stories”) are, however sweeping, poetic and fast-paced. It is as if the trapped women look out through a pinhole and see the roiling history of Cuba at once.
A few of the women, including the narrator, are ill, and care less about survival than being freed from their confinement. It is against this backdrop of frustration that the narrator finally introduces the great love of her life, the father of her missing son.
The sub-stories are told in the language of storytelling, full of suspense and surrealism, but with the historical facts intact. The reader has wider context than our narrator, not because of María’s naiveté or ignorance, but because of our vantage point—as present-day readers we know what is in store for Cuba post-1963. If we can trust a narrator of historical fiction, and here I believe we can, then we are actually looking at two versions of the story. In The Distant Marvels, we have a trustworthy narrator telling us a story, over which we can layer additional facts.
The novel finishes with a return, as sagas often do. Our narrator sees her home again, but briefly. Because she has had the opportunity to show us who she is, she can accept her life for what it is: something brutal, fugitive, and dreamlike. “[T]here is something else that has loosened, and I realize it suddenly, that what had been tormenting me has lifted.”