cover image The Distant Marvels

The Distant Marvels

Chantel Acevedo. Europa (Penguin, dist.), $17 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-60945-252-0

This resonant multi-generational family chronicle from Acevedo (Love and Ghost Letters) begins with Hurricane Flora, one of the strongest Atlantic storms on record. In September 1963, the hurricane approaches Cuba, forcing its populace to take shelter. Maria Sirena, an ailing 64-year-old widow finds refuge with seven other women inside Casa Velazquez, the mansion of the former governor of Santiago. Maria befriends Susana Soto, a 29-year-old breast cancer survivor who discovers that Maria was once a lectora at a cigar factory. To help pass the time, Susana persuades Maria to recount her eventful life history. The plot device of having her speak to a captive audience works effectively. Acevedo also makes judicious use of the historical material: Maria describes her parents' hardships as insurgents struggling to liberate Cuba from Spain. Mireya, Maria's estranged friend, denounces her lurid storytelling as something found in "a 10-cent novel." However, Maria, who has lost her son, thought to be in the U.S., and her daughter, who resides in Havana, feels compelled to relate her story in the face of skepticism. Her story takes a grim turn when she reveals her imprisonment in a Spanish concentration camp, where she became pregnant. The intervention of a U.S. journalist won Maria her freedom, but it came at a terrible price. As Hurricane Flora blows past Fidel Castro's new Cuba, Acevedo's heartbreaking and humane novel comes to a memorable conclusion. (Apr.)