With her third novel, Chantel Acevedo, born in Miami, has achieved a rich and engrossing portrayal of life in her ancestral Cuba. Against a background of rich human interaction, horrific suffering frequently threatens any kind of normal living.
The year is 1963, during the devastating Hurricane Flora, and María Sirena, the octogenarian narrator, is one of seven women plucked from their homes to shelter on the top floor of a former governor's mansion. Much of the book is taken up with the stories she tells her companions - and herself - to keep boredom at bay.
When a writer gathers stories within the framework of a larger literary creation, the result is likely to favor either the individual stories or the overarching frame. The Distant Marvels takes a different tack. Almost all the stories here are told by the book's one central character. Going back to her childhood during Cuba's third and conclusive War of Independence, they form an essentially unified narrative evoking the growth of an individual who combines high intelligence, a degree of charm, and a clarity of moral vision that is salutary and refreshing.
María Sirena does not view life in simplistic, black-and-white terms. Even when denying responsibility for a family rift that destroyed a valued friendship, she still harbors sympathy for, or at least understanding of, the ex-friend who blames her.
She also possesses a beguiling vein of dry humor that illuminates her independent attitude regarding received ideas. One of the most memorable passages in the book explains why the "Song of Solomon" is María Sirena's favorite book in the bible: "There are no murders in it. No beheadings. No godly fury." Thus, with an economical 11 words, the author and her protagonist skewer, by implication, an entire genre of supposedly religious writing and thought.
At two points, a whiff of magical realism momentarily threatens, with the advent of a mermaid, to upset the applecart of true realism. But anyone who suffers, like me, from a certain resistance to that manner of expression need not worry: The danger passes quickly, and the virtues of the book amply outweigh any minor weaknesses.
Among those virtues, quite aside from the human perceptivity and warmth that distinguish The Distant Marvels, is a writing style of an elegance rarely encountered in contemporary fiction.