When The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo was announced as the book for September at Fiona’s Wednesday Book Club at Avid Reader, I was really excited to read the book because it was set in Cuba – a country that fascinates me.
Cuba is typical of countries that make up the Caribbean – in that its climate is tropical, moderated by trade winds, and often visited by hurricanes. A country whose economy was built on sugar plantations and the Cuban cigar, and whose history is steeped in colonialism and revolution. A volatile and exotic cocktail.
Although I have never physically travelled to the country, I have visited Cuba many times through books. ‘Huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ enthusiast, and possibly the ultimate macho writer, Ernest (Papa) Hemingway wrote The Old Man And The Sea about a Cuban fisherman’s relationship with the often wild seas. Although born in Argentina, Che Guevara (Ernesto Guevara de la Serna) is revered by some as a popular cultural hero in Cuba, and has been mythologised and has been the subject of a great many books and films.
Author Anais Nin was born in France to Cuban parents and spent part of her childhood in Cuba as did fellow author, Paula Fox, who documents it so beautifully and tragically in her memoir Borrowed Finery. Even Australia’s own Germaine Greer speaks highly of Cuban women in her selection of essays The State of Women in Cuba – “I abandoned my posture of superiority and let myself be impressed.”
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I found out at the book club meeting that the author, Chantel Acevedo, has never set foot on Cuban soil (most probably because of the difficulty in obtaining a travel visa to Cuba from the US during Fidel Castro’s tenure as President), but such is the power of her storytelling DNA that this fact does not detract from the story.
It is 1963 when Hurricane Flora threatens the homes and lives of residents of the remote coastal village of Maisí, and María Sirena, along with other solitary women of ‘a certain age’ are evacuated to the crumbling governor’s mansion, Casa Velázquez. Ofelia, the young female soldier, who accompanies them, is dressed in Army fatigues but still vain enough to bleach the hairs on her arms with lemon juice, tells the women that “Cuba and her spoils belong to everyone, companera. It’s the 1960s my friends. A new dawn in here!”
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These women evacuees, mostly widows, have lived through turbulent times and revolution before and are less convinced of Castro’s new world order. After all, didn’t they see Lucille Ball’s smiling face on a billboard on route to Casa Velázquez?
To distract the other women from the raging storm, María Sirena, reverts to the role she held earlier in life as a lectura in a cigar factory, and begins her story: “There is a man in the story named Agustín, who was a hero and a monster, and a woman named Lulu, who loved Agustín sometimes, hated him other times, and loved herself more. To me, they were mama and papa …”
And what a story it is! It reminded me of the tales of those great South American writers such as Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez with their lyrical prose and ‘magic realism’, but to some others in the group, it was high melodrama, best suited to a Spanish-language soap opera.
It certainly is high-stakes drama – an evil Spaniard, Captain Alarcón, conspires to have rebel Agustín thrown in jail. For the next 14 years, he imprisons Lulu and María Sirena in an inn and forces Lulu to be his mistress. Lulu, a great beauty, is also a practical realist and takes innkeeper, Julio, as a lover because she recognises an innate kindness in his eyes. But this episode ends tragically and culminates with the Captain’s murder. “I’d assumed it was Julio Reyes,” recounts María Sirena, “but then I saw the pistol … drop from my mother’s hand.”
Agustín, newly escaped from prison, enters into this bloody aftermath as he arrives to reclaim his family and carry them away to join Jose Marti’s rebel forces.The subsequent action becomes even more sensational as battles ensue and eventually Marti is killed.
María Sirena falls in love with Mario, a young Afro-Cuban soldier, a dangerous choice given the racial prejudices of 1895 Cuba. Yet she explains: “Mario was all the food I needed, and I fed my eyes and ears with the sights and sounds of him.”
The subsequent chapters are exquisitely written with baroque details about imprisonment in a camp, starvation, pregnancy, a perilous escape, birth and death. Chantel Acevedo cleverly depicts pivotal moments in Cuba’s history through the eyes of a humble but hardly ordinary woman.
One of the women evacuees has an advanced case of cancer, but there are strong hints that María Sirena suffers from an undiagnosed illness herself, and wants the others to bear witness to her story, and perhaps provide absolution. Toward the end of the novel, a character declares, “One day, you’ll look upon this moment and all you have suffered in this war, as a series of distant marvels, and it will only hurt a little to remember them.”
When María Sirena realises that “I loved. I have been loved,” her journey is complete. I close my eyes and picture the sea, calm like a plate. I imagine floating upon it. There is no wind to churn the waters. There is only sunlight. There is only the story I tell to myself to pass the time, about a mermaid, a girl, and love building over the course of a life.
As usual the book club was mixed in its opinion of The Distant Marvels, and this was reflected in the subsequent ratings given to the book. I (and quite a few others) gave it a high-scoring nine out of ten. Why? Because it was both magical (how could it not be when the characters names included Illuminata and Inconsolada) and educative – I now know about lectors and lecturas, reconcentrado camps, and various other pivotal points in Cuban history.
The lowest score was five, and there were a few sixes. Why? These book club members thought it was too melodramatic, and yet others thought that they had heard this story (with its dramatic highs and lows) before and this version paled in comparison.
What we did agree on was that The Distant Marvels is an excellent choice for book club because of the robust discussion it engendered. And, as a matter of fact, some members even upped their final scores because of the calibre of the debate.
If you are in a book club (or wanting to start one) why not consider The Distant Marvels as your next choice for these additional three very good reasons:
- You can get inside information via the book’s appendices, which include a Q & A with Chantel Acevedo as well as discussion points
- You can serve Epicurean Eva’s delectable and mouth-watering Cuban Veggie Sandwich
- You can serve Cuba’s national drink to celebrate its independence – Cuba Libre – Jamie Oliver says: “There’s more to it than just cola, rum and lime; it’s the way you make it.”