Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-07-04
- Reviewer: Staff
At the heart of O’Henry-winner Palacio’s debut novel are the twins Ulises and Isabel Encarnacion. The twins’ mother, Soledad, has fled Cuba with her children during the Mariel boat-lift of 1980, leaving their rebel father, Uxbal, behind in rural Buey Arriba. The three exiles settle in Connecticut, where Soledad takes up with a Dutch horticulturist who grows Cuban tobacco, but she, like her children, cannot escape the past. All three family members are defined by their longing for something lost. Ulises, especially, longs for something indefinable, something he wonders if he ever had in the first place, and which he carries as a burden anyway. A twisted promise Uxbal asks Isabel to keep drives the girl deep into Catholic mysticism. She seeks sacrifice, choosing first one martyrdom and then another, until she goes missing. Ulises is a natural with the Dutchman’s soil, and he excels in Latin and the classics at school. He doesn’t remember much about home, but when Soledad falls victim to cancer and asks him to find Isabel, Ulises returns to Cuba. In fact, all the characters end up where they began—in Cuba—their journeys as mythic as geographic. Perhaps strongest of all in this winning debut are the scenes set in Cuba: these humid and colorful pages sing with empathy. The orphans, rebels, and old women he describes breathe with vital intensity. Agent: PJ Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Oct.)
A family in flux between Cuba and the U.S.
The Mortifications, Derek Palacio’s beautifully written debut novel, begins in 1980, during the Mariel boatlift that took refugees from Cuba to the United States. Soledad Encarnación packs her 12-year-old son, Ulises, and his twin sister, Isabel, onto an overcrowded lobster boat that carries them away from their village of Buey Arriba. Her husband, Uxbal, chooses to stay behind, but not without first trying to prevent his family’s departure by holding Isabel ransom.
In Connecticut, Soledad becomes a court stenographer and attracts the attention of lawyers who find her exotic. She falls in love with Henri Willems, a Dutch horticulturalist who grows Cuba’s Habano tobacco in the Connecticut River Valley.
At 17, Ulises, a budding Latin scholar, gets a job working in Henri’s fields. The more devout Isabel volunteers with the terminally ill at Jude the Apostle. Soon, she takes a vow of chastity and silence and leaves for Guatemala to establish a school funded by the church. And all of this is before Soledad’s diagnosis of breast cancer and a letter from Uxbal, who demands his family’s return to Cuba.
The Mortifications is a devastating portrait of the realities we construct for ourselves, the parts of our history we choose to embrace and those we yearn to escape. In deceptively simple prose, Palacio writes movingly of dreams and family legacies and reminds us that, no matter how far away you travel, some aspects of one’s ancestry are forever a part of you.