cover image The Wishing Box

The Wishing Box

Dashka Slater, Chronicle Books. Chronicle Books, $22.95 (300pp) ISBN 978-0-8118-2606-8

Slater's enchanting debut puts magic-realist devices to good use as it uncovers a complex family history. The interwoven narratives start in 1989, in Oakland, where 29-year-old single mother Julia Harris lives with her two young children; her downbeat sister, Lisa; and their clairvoyant, half-Mexican aunt, Simone. Stuck in a dispiriting job editing self-help books, Julia has ""no career ambitions to speak of, no relationship"" and no life plans. Like Simone, Julia has come to believe ""you can't change the future any more than you can change the past."" Julia's own past seems especially poignant: her father walked out on his family when she was seven. On her own son's seventh birthday, Julia lets Lisa persuade her to lock an image of the Virgin Mary in a ""wishing box,"" the wish being that the sisters see their father again. Bill Harris indeed returns to his family--but by then Julia has disappeared, finding a safe romantic haven with a theology student named Gabriel. During Julia's absence, family members learn to deal with their ghosts. When an earthquake sends Julia rushing home to her son, she and her father finally have a liberating encounter. Julia and Simone narrate alternating chapters, with Simone's sister, Carolina, adding her voice. Simone's segments are always clear and sometimes poetic, while Julia's grow winningly self-aware. Simone's difficult cross-cultural childhood gives the narrative yet more depth, and her special powers furnish a potent narrative device. Since she can sometimes see the future or the past, her psychic abilities fill in missing links in Slater's cleanly assembled and moving ""story after the story after the story."" (Mar.)