Tutalo’s debut novel follows an undocumented Mexican immigrant who becomes entangled with a crime syndicate in order to survive in America with her young daughter.
To escape poverty in Mexico, Gabriela makes some hard choices. She begins her life in the United States as a drug mule, forced to pay off a debt to her drug trafficker boss, Salas, who punishes her for minor offenses, including tardiness. Gabriela eventually gets her own apartment in New Jersey, but she’s unable to hold a job, and, later, she becomes pregnant. She unfortunately receives assistance from Don Fernandez, a high-ranking official for Nada Mas, a criminal organization tied to drug running, human trafficking, and a pedophilia ring. She eventually manages to get out from under Fernandez’s thumb, which requires her to steal a few incriminating documents. She raises her daughter, Sarita, in solitude and the relative safety of the Garden State, but after some time, Fernandez and associates track her down, abduct her, and send her back to Mexico. Consequently, Sarita seeks help from a reclusive neighbor and struggling artist named Dante. He comes with his own bundle of problems, though, including an association with Bella Notta, a powerful man who blames him for his daughter Lola’s “loss of innocence.” Once it’s clear that Fernandez has sent people to eliminate Sarita, she and Dante flee, and the FBI is soon hot on their trails. Special Agents Alec D. Donovan and William W. Walsh not only uncover information about Dante, they also suspect that he kidnapped Sarita. Meanwhile, Dante and Sarita fight to stay alive.
Tutalo’s story is epic in scale and set over quite a long period, starting with Gabriela as a little girl in Mexico and ending with an adult Sarita discovering her mother’s journals. Tutalo skillfully maps it all out in a nonlinear narrative, clearly establishing each scene even as the story bounces between different points in time. It maintains a consistent sense of momentum throughout, aided by short chapter lengths. Gabriela is appealing from the start, as when she helps a mother and child as they dash across the U.S.–Mexico border, disregarding the possibility that she could be captured herself. There are some touching moments, especially involving Gabriela and Sarita, but also a good amount of violence. One brutal attack against Gabriela, for example, is particularly alarming due to its suddenness and randomness. However, this pales in comparison to a later scene involving Dante and a secret room with chains, medical instruments, and much worse. Tutalo’s metaphors are occasionally too conspicuous; Gabriela, for example, has scars from cigarette burns, courtesy of Salas, which the author unnecessarily connects to an “emotional stain” and “darker time from Gabriela’s past.” Nevertheless, in many other instances, the lavish descriptions linger: “Everything that had once been was now forever gone, and everything that might be was now a blank canvas waiting to be painted.” And despite the book’s bouts of gloom, there’s an unmistakable message of hope that never fades.
An often enthralling tale of how a strong family can withstand anything.