In the Name of Salomé
Reviewed by Belinda Acosta, Fri., June 16, 2000
In the Name of Salomé: A Novelby Julia Alvarez
Algonquin Books, 368 pp., $23.95
Some books demand reading all at once, books where extraordinary excursions through time and place, and odysseys of the heart capture from the first page, and day turns to night before the reader lifts her eyes from the book. Julia Alvarez's new novel, In the Name of Salomé, is one of these books.
Featuring Dominican poet Salomé Ureña and her daughter Camila, Alvarez's novel is based on extensive research, interviews, and hard-to-find material, including early manuscripts of Salomé's work. Alvarez does not consider her book "biography, historical portraiture or even a record of all I learned, but a work of the imagination," according to her acknowledgments.
Salomé's poems stirred a generation of progressive thinkers starting in 1874, when political upheavals throughout the Caribbean were already a mainstay of life among the island nations. That few readers in this part of the world know Salomé's work today is not unusual, as "Americans don't interest themselves in the heroes and heroines of minor countries until someone makes a movie about them," Alvarez's Camila remarks early in the book.
Though celebrated during her lifetime, Alvarez offers a Salomé whose introversion, feelings of separation because of her skin color, and conflicted relationships with the men in her life exist as partial explanation for her near disappearance into the shadows of history. But In the Name of Salomé is not merely a history lesson. It also follows the path of Camila's search to know the mother she lost at age three, and of her own identity. After a life of teaching and meeting the expectations of her father and brothers, she uproots herself from New England at age 65 to move to Cuba at the height of the Castro revolution. There, she seeks to discover for herself the idea of "patria," and the role of love in the fight for justice and in all human relationships.
Alvarez unfolds the lives of Salomé and Camila in complementary chapters, alternating between the two lives with first person and an omniscient narrator. Though the style is demanding, the reader derives satisfaction in the same way a person who comes across the relics of lives past, and pieces together a landscape previously unknown by the dead and the living. These flushes of discovery make In the Name of Salomé a satisfying and intriguing read.