A powerful family saga, Palacio’s gorgeous and challenging debut follows the Encarnacións as they navigate the space between Hartford, Connecticut, and their native Cuba.
In 1980, Soledad Encarnación gathered her children, twins Ulises and Isabel, and emigrated from Cuba to the U.S., members of the “now-infamous” Mariel Boatlift. Her husband, Uxbal, though, resisted and then refused. “Kingdoms, he said, are hard to come by,” and indeed, “he was so certain of his position that he’d tried holding his daughter ransom....Soldedad was able to retrieve the girl only by holding Ulises hostage in return.” And so the family is split: Uxbal remains in Buey Arriba while Soledad takes the children past Miami, with its waiting Cuban community, and on to Hartford, where her “second cousin knows some people.” There, she establishes herself as a court stenographer, eventually beginning a romance with Henri Willems, a Dutch horticulturalist haunted by his family’s past. Ulises, star of his school’s Latin program and growing enormous, finds a home working Willems’ tobacco fields. “His logic was that he could scrape together a father, his old father, from bits of the Dutchman; he could resuscitate memories and eventually recall something of Uxbal besides the portrait lurking about his brain,” Palacio writes. Meanwhile, Isabel devotes herself to the dying. Her spiritual hunger is powerful, often unsettling; at 18, despite her family’s protests, she joins a convent, taking vows of chastity, poverty, and silence. But their tenuous American equilibrium is disrupted when a letter arrives from Uxbal, reasserting his existence and, unexpectedly, inadvertently, calling the family home. The fates of the Encarnacións, it becomes clear, are inextricably linked with Cuba and with each other. Palacio’s writing is deceptively simple and startlingly original, and his characters, raw, almost mythic in scope, hang on long after the last page.
Searching, heartbreaking, and achingly beautiful, the novel is as intimate as it is sweeping.