cover image Sirena Selena

Sirena Selena

Mayra Santos-Febres. Picador USA, $21 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-312-25227-4

In this titillating debut novel, a follow-up to her well-received short fiction collection, Urban Oracles, Santos-Febres evokes the sometimes dreamy, always seamy world of Caribbean drag queens, hustlers, transsexuals and two remarkable divas. Strung out and singing his dead abuela's boleros, a 15-year-old street urchin/hustler named Leocadio rummages through the garbage in a shabby San Juan alley looking for food. His crystalline singing voice is ""as old and as fresh as the perennial pain of love"" and his beautiful face and honey-colored mane enchant Martha Divine, a respected, worldly transsexual and owner of the Blue Danube, a seedy but chic drag club. A consummate businesswoman, Martha immediately sees Leocadio's star potential, plucks the androgynous teen off the streets, helps him kick the cocaine habit that's ravaging his nasal passages (""that's not where a young lady is supposed to have her first period""), and transforms Leocadio into Sirena Selena, a spellbinding bolero-singing diva. After successful shows in Puerto Rico, Martha decides it's time for Sirena to take on the Dominican Republic. While auditioning at a posh Santo Domingo hotel, Sirena is bidden to entertain Hugo Graubel III, a rich businessman who recognizes her as ""the woman of his dreams."" Sirena ditches Martha to stay with Hugo (who nonchalantly sends his wife packing) and performs, with smashing success, at the dinner party Hugo gives for the Dominican elite. Meanwhile, enterprising Martha finds another gig providing live entertainment at an upscale, underground gay club. Flashbacks throughout this lushly lyrical novel reveal decades in the lives of Martha and Sirena, while an array of vibrant narrators animate the plot twists. Deep purple prose strikes just the right campy, melancholy note as Santos-Febres illuminates the essence of these unforgettable, fiery femmes with moving pathos. (Aug.)