cover image Mambo Hips and Make Believe

Mambo Hips and Make Believe

Wanda Coleman. Black Sparrow Press, $25 (250pp) ISBN 978-1-57423-095-6

A close friendship between two women is the basis of this ambitious but overlong and discursive novel. Tamala Fortenot, a woman of mixed racial heritage and lofty dreams, seeks to overcome the sometimes comedic but often tragic follies of her alcoholic parents and other eccentric family members, as well as her own emotional conflicts, while maintaining a nourishing relationship with a black woman, Erlene. Between 1976 and 1991, their deep bond survives numerous calamities; the one thing that remains constant is their devotion to pursuing a shared dream of becoming writers. Inspired by the TV mini-series Roots, Tamala, who passes for white on occasion, is trying to write a book about her family, including her rarely discussed Mexican-American heritage. While her career suffers its ups and downs, it is her emotional life that causes Tamala pain. She's been diagnosed with a genetic birth defect that prevented her sexual organs from developing, so she can never have children. This condition, which also prevents the sexual consummation of any relationship, leaves her lonely and suicidal. Only her friendship with Erlene, chronicled by letters closing each chapter, provides some solace, and even that bond is occasionally strained by her restlessness and self-doubt. When Tamala describes herself as a writer, she also reveals her view of herself as a woman: ""I am a Morgan horse who wishes she were a thoroughbred."" Much of Tamala's poignant story is buried under the weight of excessive family history and awkward plot devices. Erlene rarely emerges as an autonomous character in her own right. While Coleman (Bathwater Wine) exhibits a colorful imagination, the characters and events evolve in a dizzying blur that leaves the reader impressed at the scope of the tale but disappointed with its cumulative effect. (Dec.)