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This debut novel by short-story writer Mendez makes use of symbols, myth and its author's fine spare style to tell a story of female bonding between unlikely ""sisters"" before the days of women's lib and in the repressive setting of politically volatile Colombia. Laura Alvarez, an educated young American woman married to a Colombian-born economist, agrees to travel with her husband, Andres, to his homeland to meet her in-laws. Laura is a conscientious liberal who reacts to Kennedy's resumption of nuclear testing with mystic episodes of automatic writing, during which it comes to her that she will die before she returns home. In Bogotá, she finds herself and her two-year-old daugther, Susan, frighteningly isolated in the bosom of the Alvarez family, which includes Andres' dour mother Pilar and his three sisters, Elena, Concha, and Francisca--the last a psychologically unstable woman who spent time in the US serving as housemaid to a doctor who apparently raped her. Nevertheless, as even Andres turns a cold shoulder to Laura, reverting to the sexual chauvinism of his native culture, Laura grows close to Francisca and a growth-stunted servant girl, Carmen. Then, when Andres' mother's brutal murder puts an end to life as all the characters in this novel have known it, Francisca and the servant-girl Carmen join forces and Laura leaves Colombia, sharing with Francisca her realization that her marriage has most likely come to an end. Polished writing almost covers the fact that several of the characters here lack the development that would make sense of their actions and relationships. Heavy-handed symbolizing--Francisca the condor, Carmen the hummingbird--is called upon to take the place of psychological motivation, but to unsatisfactory effect. And while the lurid ethos of a violent society ("". . .political violence turned into butchery, banditry as a way of life. . ."") is strongly created, its prefigurement of violence yet to come in American society--with the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War, etc.--isn't integrated into the psychological framework of the book. Mendez is an excellent, imaginative writer; but her first novel seems only an outline for something bigger and better to come.

Pub Date: May 15th, 1986
Publisher: Wild Trees (P.O. Box 378, Navarro, CA 95463)