Book Review: The Island of Eternal Love

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Dragon/License Plate Photo: Brayan Collazo

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I’m not a regular reader of fiction. I find real life far too interesting.

But it was my interest in real life—specifically, my own work interviewing Chinese Cubans in Havana that began in 2008—that led me to Daina Chaviano’s novel, The Island of Eternal Love, translated into English by Andrea G. Labinger and published by Penguin’s imprint, Riverhead Books, in 2008.

The novel isn’t specifically about Chinese Cubans. In fact, it’s about what Chaviano refers to as “the three origins…of the Cuban nation” (Spanish, African, and Chinese). But it may just be the first novel published in English that includes the Chinese Cuban community in Havana as one of its principal subjects.

Though the rest of the world is largely unaware of the fact, Chinese immigrants began arriving in Cuba’s capital and main port city by the thousands in the 1840s, lured by promises of work and financial stability, which were lacking at home. (Francisco’s maternal and paternal grandparents were among the Chinese immigrants). Today, there are more than 10,000 living descendants of these immigrants on the island, Jorge Chao, secretary of the Casino Chung Wah, a social club for Chinese Cubans in Havana’s Chinatown, told me when I interviewed him last May.

Chao talked about the hardships Chinese immigrants faced, and these are rendered accurately in Chaviano’s novel—the decision to change Chinese names to Spanish names to gain acceptability in Cuban society; the difficulty of integrating into a culture whose sounds, sights and tastes were frustratingly foreign; the social isolation young Chinese immigrants experienced in schools; and the self-imposed isolation the Chinese Cubans experienced when they clustered in cultural enclaves intended to foster mutual aid and maintain traditions.

For the reader unfamiliar with Cuban history and culture, these details are likely to come as interesting surprises. Chaviano peppers the novel with historically correct details that are also wonderfully evocative—the smell of steaming pork buns and fish soup, the symbolism of the Chinese lottery—still played in Cuba today–, and the inclusion of Cuban sayings that reveal how Chinese Cubans were both integrated into and isolated from the dominant culture.

Despite Chaviano’s firm grasp of Chinese Cuban history and culture, the novel can be difficult to follow. The author introduces more than two dozen characters, located in or evoking four countries and one continent (Spain, Cuba, China, the US, and Africa), all spanning several generations. Even the most interested reader may have a hard time keeping track, but for the reader lacking any point of reference about Cuban history, I wonder if the novel may feel more onerous to read than pleasurable.

There’s also the issue of the writing. The Island of Eternal Love is really about the main character, Cecilia, a Cuban American journalist living in Miami who is desperate to understand herself, her history, and the mystery of a ghost house that appears and disappears in various locations in south Florida. Cecilia becomes interested in new agey mysticism as a means of resolving these tensions, and the novel begins to feel weighted with clichés about crystals, auras, and women who see or intuit things about others that remain obscure to the person affected. The effort, it seems, is to evoke a sense of the mysterious that does—as any visitor to Cuba can attest– seem to shroud the island and Havana in particular. But the metaphor feels too obvious, too forced. Unfortunately, there are many instances of these all too obvious “as if by magic” narrative devices. Perhaps they read more convincingly in the original Spanish, but they often seem silly in the English translation.

Still, the book is a worthwhile read, especially for those with an interest in and basic knowledge of Cuba. It may be most appropriate for Cuban Americans, many of whom are likely to recognize the complexity of their own experiences and emotions in Cecilia’s character. For other readers, sticking around for the ending may be a challenge, but if you can forgive the occasionally affected language, The Island of Eternal Love is an engaging and worthwhile read, a fictional account that brings some fascinating and overlooked aspects of Cuban history to life.

How to Write a Book Review

I’m in the midst of working on a few book reviews– Daina Chaviano’s The Island of Eternal Love,
David Lida’s First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, Kiss the Hand You Cannot Sever by Adrienne Brady, and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer by popular travel writer, Rolf Potts– so I’ve got book reviews on my mind.

In an earlier article, I explained how you can request review copies. In this article, I explain how one writes a book review, focusing primarily on identifying the criteria you should take into consideration while reading the book you’ll be reviewing.

As with any genre, the more you read book reviews, the better you’re likely to become at writing reviews.

One of my secret pleasures is reading New York Times Book Review each Sunday. The reviewers–writers themselves, and likely just as sensitive as their subjects– are never ambivalent: they lavish praise or heap criticism on authors in full page meditations… and I must admit that I’ve kept this particular pleasure secret until now because I find the critical reviews especially appealing.

Why?

Well, because a good review is, like any good writing, cognizant of what words mean, how they should be treated, and what we, as readers, should expect of them, how we should feel after we take them in and turn them over like a prism in the light. When a book possesses shortcomings, book reviewers call authors on the gaps in their work and demand that they do better. I like reading the reviews because I’d like to think they make me a better writer and editor…and a better book reviewer.

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Reading a book in order to write a review requires a bit more attention and purpose than you’d devote as a casual reader. When reading in order to review you want to take the following ideas into account:

What is the subject of the book? And in answering that question, you need to ask another: What has already been written about the same subject? How will this author expand the reader’s understanding of the subject (if it’s been written about extensively before)? Does the author offer new insights or an innovative articulation of an already well-treated subject?

What is the author’s background? What makes the author uniquely qualified to write about the subject? What has the author written before? The answers to these questions vary in their relative importance depending on the genre, but are worth asking when approaching any book.

You don’t necessarily need to share the author’s background with the reader of your review. Sometimes, though, doing so is particularly appropriate. Consider, for example, David Kamp’s introduction to his review of Jules Feiffer’s Explainers, published last weekend in the Times:

“At this point, there’s an entire generation of parents and kids who know Jules Feiffer solely as a children’s book author…. It’s been eight years since he stopped doing his weekly syndicated comic strip for grown ups….”

All this information sets the reader up for a comparison of Feiffer’s new book, an anthology of 10 years worth of his work, to his existing body of work, providing the reader with useful information.

What does the author establish as the thesis (for non-fiction) or the narrative hook (for fiction)? And then, does the author fulfill the promise implied by that thesis or hook?

As the reviewer, you may wish to even lead into the review with your own summation of the narrative hook…without spoiling the plot and its resolution, of course! Take for instance, Andrew Miller’s review of Jose Saramago’s novel, Blindness:

“Traffic at a red light. The lights change, the cars move off, all except one that remains blocking the middle lane. A man inside is shouting the same three words again and again: ‘I am blind.’ Distraught, he is accompanied to his home by a kindly stranger. But this good Samaritan is also a car thief. Having taken the blind man home, he steals his car. A short time later he too is blind.”

While Miller could have opened his review by saying, “Saramago’s novel is about a whole town that goes blind, save one person,” this opening is far more engaging and interesting.

Finally, you’ll need to consider:

How well does the author write? Authors with a particularly unique narrative style might deserve special mention. I like Jennifer Egan’s description of Jim Harrison’s writing in her recent review of Harrison’s novel, The English Major:

“Jim Harrison’s writing is oddly mysterious. His prose style is plain, even flat. His sentences unspool casually, and are often comma-free to the point of sounding almost hapless.”

The reader of Egan’s review is preparing for a withering commentary about Harrison’s novel.

And then, she makes an abrupt turn:

“Yet they fuse on the page with a power and a blunt beauty whose mechanics are difficult to trace even when you look closely.”

Egan goes on to call Harrison’s writing style a “straw-to-gold technique” that characterizes his work. Egan isn’t just sharing her opinion about Harrison’s writing; she’s helping the reader of her review to approach Harrison’s style and access it in a new way.

Miller’s review of Saramago’s novel is similarly adept at preparing the reader for Saramago’s inimitable style–one which is often frustrating to readers new to the Portuguese writer’s work. Miller wrote:

“The prose, with its minimal punctuation, its flickering of tense and subject so that we glide between first and third person, between stream of consciousness and wry objectivity… takes a page or two for the reader to settle into…; the denseness of the long polyphonic paragraphs appears slightly daunting at the first encounter. Soon, however, we are caught up by the sheer momentum of the narrative. The unencumbered language hurries us forward at such a pace it is difficult to do justice to the subtlety and occasional beauty of its architecture, as if we were driving headlong through a great city at night.”

Miller’s review is almost as lyrical as Saramago’s novel, and if I hadn’t read it already, I’d be headed off to the library to check it out.

Does the book review ultimately reflect the reviewer’s own literary preferences and prejudices? Of course. But by paying attention to these basic criteria, you have a point of departure for your reviews, and a set of standards to which your readers can hold you, just as you have done with the author whose work you’re reviewing.

Now get reading!

Photo: swiv (Flickr creative commons)