In 1963, a storm approaches Cuba, and an elderly woman named María Sirena knows that it is coming. She sees the “ferocious churn of the sky, like a black mouth opening and closing.” This mouth-storm tells stories—but bigger than stories. The storm is “bigger than all of Cuba.” There is talk that this storm over Haiti had wrenched away the sea to reveal a sunken ship, and then dropped the sea back onto it. For María Sirena, the storm tells us these stories. It reveals things that we have done.
María Sirena lives on the easternmost point of Cuba, in a town named Maisí. When the storm threatens, soldiers take her, along with several other women, by bus to shelter in Santiago de Cuba. They are sheltered in the grand house Casa Velázquez, described as “the oldest house on the island,” the residence of the island’s first governor. In this setting, she tells her story.
It is the beginning of Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba, following the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Batista regime. María Sirena has been shaped by revolution. Her coming of age plays out in front of the grim and violent backdrop of the Spanish-American War, or what Cubans call the War of Independence. Poverty, starvation, political struggle, and violence accompanied young María Sirena and her parents through their country’s riotous history.
In María Sirena’s present day of 1963, the story opens with hidden truths: a “dozen unfilled doctor’s prescriptions” on her dresser indicate that she has become very ill, which she has chosen to hide from her neighbor Ada. And then the story glides, with ease, into a story about storytelling. In the world of The Distant Marvels, a daughter is shaped by the stories that her mother tells her, as much as she is shaped by life experiences. Place is tied to María Sirena’s stories gracefully and evocatively. When the elderly María Sirena lies awake at night, she hears crabs under the house “scratching, digging, burrowing” in much the same way as she lies awake scratching, digging, burrowing at stories her mother had told her. On memory, María Sirena observes: “In truth, I’m merely remembering, and what I remember is a story my mother told me long ago about another storm.”
For María Sirena, a memory without a storyline is not a memory. Memories converge with story. Worthwhile stories are memories. The two become one and the same for her. She was once a cigar factory lettora, reading to the working men from a high stool as they rolled tobacco. She invented an author name, and in this guise she told them accounts from her own life. This was her nature; she could not help but do this. In the present, under shelter of the Casa Velázquez, she begins to tell her fellow detainees another story from her youth, and reveals: “When I begin again, it is as if I am no longer doing the speaking. It’s like I’m there again, sitting in the tall chair in the cigar factory, holding a book in my hand from which I do not read. But this time, I tell a part of the story I’d never meant to tell.”
The book is divided, in chapters of alternating perspectives, between now and then. The past unfolds in narrated stories of her mother and father, and her coming of age. With charm, she brings forth celebrated figures from Cuba’s revolutions. There are mentions and appearances of Maceo, the general in the Cuban Liberation Army, “a name the rebels murmured reverently,” and Martí the revolutionary poet. She recalls that her mother recited poems in moments of patriotic gush: “Often, the poems were those of Martí, and her eyes would water as she recited. Then, she’d make the sign of the cross for the repose of Martí’s soul.” And she recalls that the rebel fighter, as well as the country people, “who we called the guajiros, would let us stay in their house and share their table.”
Though some elements of story recall the 19th-century class and race tensions of the Cuban author Cirilo Villaverde’s notable Cecilia Valdés, this book is less in the school of this, and less in the school of other recent Cuban authors such as Reinaldo Arenas. This book is more in the school of Janet Fitch’s White Oleander and those like it, with memorable mother and daughter duos. But more than this, in voice it seems to draw from the Cuban-born American novelist Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban, which Acevedo has mentioned in interviews as an influence earlier in life as reader and writer. To some degree The Distant Marvels does not belong in any school of fish but is the solitary octopus who decorates its lair; singular in its shape and aims as an artistic expression of its Miami-born, Cuban-American author.
Though it is a dark story of family generations haunted by a country’s violent history, including the horrors of reconcentrado camps, some scenes in the book are expressly romantic. Some are too romantic, at both scene and sentence level, with surges of emotional voice. In Part II, in the span of one chapter, her mother tells María Sirena the story of how she met her father. A rebel, fighting the Spanish army, he breaks into her parents’ shop. When she first sees him, she recalls: “His plump lips were pink and glossy, as if he’d just been kissed.” The veracity of observations like this rings false, because it is expressed in this exaggerated style. In this case, the voice is that of her mother, and somehow the narrative distance makes the romance-prose less tedious.
María Sirena’s past builds to a dramatic and stunning moment, which occurs when she approaches some American soldiers. She believes that she will find understanding and generosity among them. It is a belief that wells up in her despite her ravaged state and her keen knowledge of all the good that mankind fails to do.
In the opening chapters she describes three marvels, which are stories that her mother told her. For María Sirena, these stories are distant in time but converge with memory, and will go on for as long as someone will tell the story.