In Chantel Acevedo’s new novel The Distant Marvels, an elderly Cuban widow named María Sirena defies the impending threat of a hurricane with a stubborn determination to stay in her own home. Once she is forced to evacuate, the narrator distracts her fellow refugees like Scheherazade, with astonishing, tragic tales from her own life. “I plumb my memories from the first stories I ever heard, the ones my mother told me of her own youth and mine,” María Sirena confides.
Acevedo, author of novels A Falling Star and Love and Ghost Letters, shifts the narrative from 1963 Castro-run Cuba to the Cuban war for independence from Spain. With baroque detail, intense pacing and a melodramatic plot, Acevedo depicts pivotal moments in Cuba’s history through the eyes of a humble but hardly ordinary woman.
“There is a man in the story named Agustín, who was a hero and a monster,” María Sirena tells her fellow evacuees, mostly widows. “And a woman, named Lulu, who loved Agustín sometimes, hated him other times, and loved herself more. To me, they were mama and papa …”
Acevedo’s characters and what befalls them could be made into a swashbuckling historical telenovela. A dastardly 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. Resourceful Lulu also takes innkeeper Julio as a lover. This scenario 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.” Cranking up the drama, the author inserts newly escaped Agustín into the 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 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.” In a succession of exhausting, albeit beautifully written chapters, imprisonment in a camp, starvation, pregnancy, a perilous escape, birth and death follow.
Even in the novel’s present-day moments, Acevedo does not dial down the intensity. The historic mansion where the evacuees take refuge is battered by the hurricane. “The water is waist high downstairs,” one lady reports. “I saw rats swimming in.” Meanwhile, one of the women there has an advanced case of cancer, and there are strong hints that María Sirena suffers from an undiagnosed illness herself. The narrative is as soaked in death as a battlefield might be with blood.
By focusing on María Sirena’s stories, the author underlines the importance of bearing witness. Acevedo’s work echoes such fiction as Rosario Ferré’s The House on the Lagoon and Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, in which female protagonists reclaim history by recounting it from a woman’s perspective.
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.” In The Distant Marvels, however, traumatic memories aren’t distant at all but resurface like long-buried shards of glass whose sharp edges never dull.
Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.