I’ve been settling in to a pile of historical fiction lately for Women’s History Month (with a quick reminder that we still have over a week’s worth of authors guest hosting on The Romance of Reading FB page!*).
A recent title that I found completely compelling and fascinating was Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year In Havana, a dual time line story that takes place in Cuba at the time of the revolution and today.
After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity—and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution...
Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba's high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country's growing political unrest--until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary...
Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa's last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.
Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba's tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she'll need the lessons of her grandmother's past to help her understand the true meaning of courage.
After finishing this lovely book and contemplating the many voices that Cleeton was able to articulate in eloquent, sophisticated ways, I was impressed and curious enough to seek the author out.
Cleeton is half Cuban. Her grandparents lived in the country for the first eight years after the Revolution and were among a later wave of people allowed out. “My Dad was actually born just a few months after Castro’s rise to power and they left in 1967. However, they’d asked to leave earlier, which caused my grandfather to be sent to the country, in effect to work hard labor in the fields. He was a doctor. And I heard and read many such stories from that time. It wasn’t unusual at all. That was the world Castro created in Cuba.”
In the end, the family was allowed to leave as refugees and they boarded a plane with one suitcase and basically the clothes on their backs. Nothing of value. Once they left, the government seized their property and everything else they left behind.
“My family was lucky. My grandfather was able to practice here. They had something to build a new life on, plus the many people who had come before had set up a lot of systems and safety nets before they got here. A lot of Cubans weren’t so lucky.”
Like so many children and grandchildren of Cuban expatriates, Cleeton grew up hearing stories of Cuba and the exile experience. “There was always this sense of longing and fondness for their home, and this desire to go back, but also this bitterness toward Castro. They wanted him out of their country. It wasn’t theirs, would never be theirs, until he was gone.”
One of the things I think Cleeton did brilliantly in this book—and one reason I feel like I want to hand it to every reader I know who likes historical fiction—is that she was able, through her characters, to express a broad spectrum of perspectives that all came across as authentic and sympathetic. “Setting-wise, I started the book a little before the revolution so that I could show how nuanced and complex things were at the time.”
As wealthy sugar plantation owners, the family of the female protagonist is friendly to the Batista regime, even though they have real concerns about his policies. In fact, the relationships among Elisa, her parents, brother and three sisters become strained when they each forge their own paths in the lead up and aftermath of Batista’s abandonment of the island nation.
Elisa has just fallen in love with lawyer Pablo, who believes in Castro’s vision and stands with him, while her brother is sympathetic to the cause but doesn’t trust Castro. His fiery passion against Batista leads to his parents banishing him from the family, but even they’re uncomfortable with the president’s corrupt and repressive regime.
All of the siblings are directly impacted by the revolution, except possibly the youngest who is an observer her sisters want to protect. And there’s a lot to protect her from. “I think the thing that surprised me the most,” says Cleeton, “something I really didn’t appreciate before I started to dive into research, was how very violent it was. I grew up hearing so many things about that time and how extreme the changes were, but I never heard these brutal details. Once I starting learning exactly how terrifying it all was, I think about my grandmother being pregnant, having an infant, having a child—in the middle of that terror and violence. It became so real to me and made me contemplate what that would have been like for her, how frightening and daunting.”
The author read documents and memoirs of all kinds, including declassified State Department memos, and wove many snapshot moments into the narrative. Yet she managed to make them realistic, while somehow keeping them removed enough that the horror never takes over. Yes, there were violent packs of people who wandered the streets. Yes there firing squads. Yes there were angry mobs who cheered during the stadium trials as individuals were sentenced to death and executed. Yes those were broadcast on tv.
However the horrifying story is told without immersing the reader in dread or despair, setting us up for the second time line, with contemporary journalist Marisol headed back to a more open Havana that still has issues, but which are much more secretive.
The Cuban experience is complicated and while Cleeton has always known this, even she was surprised by just how layered the stories could be. She does an excellent job in both timelines explaining how many different factions had starkly conflicting perspectives. People who left, people who stayed. People who resent people who left, people who wish they’d had the chance. People who were pro-Batista. Anti-Batista but pro-Castro. Anti-Batista and anti-Castro. People who were pro-Castro but appalled when he came to power and was no better (possibly worse) than Batista. “Families were truly torn apart, fractured by passionate ideals, and the stakes were extremely high because things were so violent. And then, for the generation who lived through the revolution, it was so very personal. Everyone was affected. People lost their lives, families lost everything. The hatred toward Castro was palpable, and yet the problems for average Cubans were dire under Batista. Now, two generations removed from that time, younger Cuban-Americans have a different relationship to Cuba, and Cuba itself has changed, too.”
In the contemporary storyline, Cleeton explored the many challenges facing Cuba today. It’s a country falling apart, with almost no investment in infrastructure, a still-repressive regime with another set of haves and have-nots and a government, it seems, unsure of how to move forward. Modern-day Marisol meets a Cuban history professor who seethes at the same problems Marisol’s family did when they lived in Havana. As much love as there is for the beautiful island, no one has figured out how to make things better for everyone.
One of the many reasons I love historical fiction is that it makes facts come alive through characters’ experiences, and when I finished Next Year In Havana I felt a true appreciation for the author’s ability to navigate so many different aspects of this enormous story without once losing us. We are both emotionally connected and able to track a vast set of “facts” that in other hands might have overwhelmed the story—or lost us completely. And yet she also made each perspective realistic and true.
In setting it up so well, Cleeton makes it clear that she understands, as much as anyone can, how intimate and immense the issues are, how tragic and intense each individual’s experience can be, and yet how grandly catastrophic the collective experience is as well. Cuba means something both unique and aggregate to anyone with a connection to it.
Next Year In Havana is a mesmerizing, thought-provoking exploration of Cuba's haunting legacy.
Photo courtesy of the Chanel Cleeton