cover image Skywriting


Margarita Engle. Bantam Books, $21.95 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-553-09987-4

Although it too often confronts harsh political reality with sentimentality, Engle's second novel (after Singing to Cuba) is a lush improvisation on Cuban politics and their effect on one family. Narrated by Carmen Peregrin, who was raised in the U.S. by an American mother, the novel follows the attempt of her half brother, Camilo, to flee Cuba by raft--a journey that lands him in the Viper, Castro's infamous prison. Carmen's efforts to free Camilo eventually involve an extended family, including the far reaches of the Peregrin clan in Spain, where bribe money is found in a family fortune preserved from the times of the conquistadores. The novel is resolutely--and sometimes stridently--anti-Castro. In fact, ``the Commander,'' as he is called here, is one of the most compelling characters in the book, a demon astride a paradisiacal Cuba, luring people to his speeches with fresh oranges, furtively referred to by the hungry populace as ``The Count of Meat'' or, simply, ``that guy.'' Engle indulges herself at times: Carmen's passion about her newfound Cuban identity is often pretentiously self-serious (she adopts Spanish punctuation and syntax); a trip through the family patriarch's life is overblown; and Engle's taste for lyrical language provides more rhetoric than insight, more heat than light. Nevertheless, by novel's end, she has powerfully portrayed the pain and patience demanded of citizens in the grip of tyranny. Quality Paperback alternate. (July)