A rich, impassioned vision of the Dominican Republic and its diaspora, filtered through the destiny of a single family.
After a noted debut volume of short stories (Drown, 1996), Díaz pens a first novel that bursts alive in an ironic, confiding, exuberant voice. Its wider focus is an indictment of the terrible Trujillo regime and its aftermath, but the approach is oblique, traced backwards via the children (Oscar and Lola) of a larger-than-life but ruined Dominican matriarch, Beli. In earthy, streetwise, Spanish-interlaced prose, Díaz links overweight, nerdy fantasist Oscar, his combative, majestic sister and their once Amazonian mother to the island of their ancestry. There, an aunt, La Inca, with strange, possibly supernatural powers, heals and saves Beli after her involvement with one of Trujillo’s minor henchman, who was married to the dictator’s sister. Beli, at age14, had naively hoped this affair would lead to marriage and family, but instead her pregnancy incurred a near-fatal beating, after which she fled to New Jersey to a life of drudgery, single parenting and illness. By placing sad, lovelorn, virginal Oscar at the book’s heart, Díaz softens the horrors visited on his antecedents, which began when Trujillo cast his predatory eye on wealthy Abelard Cabral’s beautiful daughter. Was the heap of catastrophes that ensued fukú (accursed fate), Díaz asks repeatedly, and can there be counterbalancing zafa (blessing)? The story comes full circle with Oscar’s death in Santo Domingo’s fateful cornfields, himself the victim of a post-Trujillo petty tyrant, but it’s redeemed by the power of love.
Despite a less sure-footed conclusion, Díaz’s reverse family saga, crossed with withering political satire, makes for a compelling, sex-fueled, 21st-century tragi-comedy with a magical twist.