In this debut collection, Filipino students, teachers, activists, maids, and chauffeurs negotiate their lives under martial law at home and seek fortune abroad in the Middle East and New York.
Each of these nine revelatory stories delivers characters who are equal parts endearing and disturbing. In the stunning “Esmeralda,” a cleaning woman ponders her station in life as she dusts offices in the twin towers in the months preceding 9/11. “You lay there—Esmeralda, daughter of the dirt, born to toil in God’s name till your hands or heart gave out—reclining like an infant or a queen, a hundred levels aboveground.” In “A Contract Overseas,” a budding fiction writer in the Philippines reveres her older brother despite his immoral, often dangerous behavior in Saudi Arabia. “I could picture him, reading my words somewhere, chuckling at my attempts to save some version of his life. Who could say, then, that I had an altogether lousy or inadequate imagination?” In the chilling “The Miracle Worker,” a special education teacher befriends her student’s family’s maid—who, it turns out, has a dark side. “I had underestimated her: what looked like a lifetime of toil and taking orders had contained subversions that no one, until now, had seen.” Alvar deftly flips the master-servant dynamic on its head. Her electric prose probes the tension between social classes, particularly in “Shadow Families,” in which wealthy Filipina housewives in Bahrain throw parties for working-class Filipinos. “These katulong—‘helpers,’ as we called them—were often younger but always aging faster than we were, over brooms and basins, their lungs fried with bleach and petroleum vapors….Helping these helpers, who’d traveled even farther, felt like home.”
A triumphant, singular collection deserving of every accolade it will likely receive.