A Place Where the Sea Remembers by Sandra Benitez (Scribner, $10 paper), a novel of interconnected stories, reminds me of a silver puzzle ring that relaxes into a little chain to play with and, when you've got to act serious, folds up again into a ring. The novel concerns the lives of nine characters who live in the small town of Santiago, Mexico, and how the slightest move by one affects, in domino fashion, the rest. As with trying to fit together the puzzle ring, it's hard to know for certain where the story starts: the day Candelario loses his job as el ensaladero (salad-maker) at an expensive restaurant in the city because the customers point out that the Caesar salad the restaurant owner has taught him to make is lacking key ingredients? Or is it when Candelario's wife Chayo lies to her sister, Marta, who is pregnant and unwed, saying that since her husband lost his job he decided they wouldn't take the baby when it arrives? Or is it when Marta visits Remedios, la curandera, to find an end to her troubles and a path to the freedom of El Paso? As destiny plays itself out, we also meet a photographer whose ride home with a gringo reveals the ignorance and fear each feels towards the other; a school teacher whose life is nearly lost to the demands of his selfish, elderly mother; a grieving fisherman and his son who together build a roadside shrine to honor the family they lost; a man who works the beach with his portable cage of birds that perform tricks and tell fortunes; and a midwife who provides comfort and healing to anyone in the village in need. Finally, as if standing in for the author's power of creation in stringing together this story of chance, loss, recovery, and fate, there is la curandera who waits at the spot on the beach where someone was raped, poised to receive the body of a boy who just that morning was swept by rushing water into the sea. A Place Where the Sea Remembers is simple and daring, imaginative, and political. Like a ring that is more than just a ring, it is fascinating for its design, succeeds at more than one goal, and, most importantly, holds secrets that matter.
The Unfastened Heart by Lane Von Herzen (Dutton, $19.95 hard) is a most unusual novel, in which statues eat cake and weep, girls fly instead of walk, and one can survive forever on chocolates and tears. With a style that teeters on the edge of the magical realism made especially popular by the movie Like Water For Chocolate, Von Herzen totters sometimes perilously close to the overwrought and falls headlong into a sweetness that is just too sappy for some. However, for those who tend to find the world too much with them The Unfastened Heart offers a garden of unearthly delights in the character of Anna, a long-suffering Martha Stewart of emotion, and her daughter, the beatific Mariela. I wish I lived in the house next door to them so I could enjoy Anna's stellar cooking and cozy living room overgrown with cages of cooing doves. Instead of me, there is the widower Clifford Ettinger, and his son Addison, an aspiring writer. The chorus in this mock tragedy is Anna's special recovery group, the love-worn but good-hearted Cordojo Women, who meet weekly for therapeutic tea and crumpets. These comical ladies - India of the fruit-bearing hats, the sweet-toothed Dove, Maxine, and her homely daughter Emily D. (a lovely shadow of the lonely poet herself), and Esther, deaf from grief - break up the sugar when it clumps and push Anna from her saintly shelf into the waiting widower's arms, mirroring the love that is already flourishing between daughter and son.
The Unfastened Heart is more than a romance, though. It is an object as lovingly crafted as the handkerchief in which Anna shrouds a dove, with language and descriptions right and beautiful as when Mariela recalls "the cool press of one dove's feet as it hesitated in her palm, its delicate forked claws feeling like the stamp of some hieroglyphic." At its best, the novel is a recomendacion - "the testimonial of one person's survival in this world, the witnessing of one individual's enduring hope." If Von Herzen's hope strikes one as too fulsome - too hopeful, even - then maybe we're the ones with the problem and should consider ourselves candidates to join the Cordojo Women.
The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich (HarperPerennial, $13 paper) is the story of Lipsha Morrissey, a young Indian whose only success is failure. When he receives a "wanted" picture of his father that his grandmother has stolen from the post office bulletin board and put in the mail, Lipsha leaves his no-thrills job shoveling sugar at a sugar beet plant to return to the reservation. A prodigal son whose prodigy still alludes him, Lipsha arrives home on the evening of a powwow and immediately falls for Shawnee Ray Toose, the dancing Miss Little Shell. Shawnee Ray has a dream of being a fashion designer as well as a young son by Lyman Lamartine, successful owner of the reservation's bingo joint. Lyman, respected and entrepreneurial to the same degree that Lipsha is a vast disappointment ("Spirits pulled his fingers when he was a baby, yet he doesn't appreciate his powers...We have done so much for him and even so, the truth is, he has done nothing yet of wide importance"), should be Lipsha's enemy. Yet on the reservation, nothing is that simple: "Our relationship is complicated by some factors over which we have no control. His real father was my stepfather. His mother is my grandmother. His half brother is my father. I have an instant crush upon his girl."
In Lipsha Morrissey The Bingo Palace offers the greatest gift a reader can desire: a character you never want to leave behind. Lipsha, with his hopeless infatuation, blind trust, stupid courage, up-and-down crazy luck, and reticence to inherit the strengths already hidden within, is the best and worst in all of us.
Of his home, Lipsha says: "I have this sudden knowledge that no matter what I do with my life, no matter how far away I go, or change, or grow and gain, I will never get away from here." Of his girl: "I think about her in the shape of clean beer glasses... I think about her as I stock the little rack of pocket combs and beer nuts... I leak love. I grin like a fool when I think of her, wipe too hard on counters and tables as though I am polishing her body..." Of himself: "I am a mad dog biting himself for sympathy."
The Bingo Palace is a triumphant story of hidden power: of an ancestral pipe changing hands, spirit stones that don't let you sink when they fill your pockets, a baby found at the bottom of a lake, money gambled back and forth, the mystery of those who leave and return, and the truth hiding inside true love. It is the amazing latest installment in Louise Erdich's series that began with Love Medicine (now out in a "new and expanded" paperback edition from HarperPerennial) and continued with The Beet Queen and Tracks, but don't despair if you haven't read them all. I haven't either - yet. Philip Roth called Erdich "the most interesting new American novelist to have appeared in years." The Bingo Palace is an astounding, aching portrait of growing up the hard way - as if there were any other way - a twentysomething Catcher in the Rye meets The Graduate at a reservation bingo palace. Bingo!
Copyright © 2020 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.