Daina Chaviano
London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2006

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2009

Cecilia is living in Miami in 1998 working for a newspaper. She is a Cuban immigrant of a few years before and hears some rumors about a ghost house that appears now and again in various places in the Miami area. She asks her editorís permission to spend some time working on that story. He suggests, no, not as a story about a ghost house, but if she can get some different ďangleĒ on it, then maybe. He gives her some time to explore that line of inquiry. Little could either of them realize just how different an angle she would uncover.

Thus begins a very strange book of magic realism which seems to even cross over into the occult, perhaps even deeper into the paranormal. Following her sole lead from an earlier newspaper account, she is recommended to visit a particular tavern in the Little Havana area of Miami. There she runs into the mysterious Amalia who begins to tell her the story of three Cuban families which ultimately unite the three ethnic groups of Cuba Ė the Spanish, the African and the Chinese.

In the end it all comes together, Cecilia figures out the story of the ghost house, and it is all closer to her than she would ever have imagined, and then the novel just ends! Even that was a bit of a startlement. However, along the way we learn a great deal about Cuba as played out in the lives of these families.

This seems to be a novel of great promise that almost got there, but just didnít make it. While author Daina Chaviano struggles to bring this story to us, I think she ultimately fails in the ability to juggle the very complex, though interesting, stories of the three families and her attempt to bring them all together to lead Cecilia to discover the secret of the ghost house and of Ceciliaís own personal involvement.

I believe that while the structure of the novel was bold, even extraordinary, the three long segments of the history of each of the key families was just too much and too many major characters to bring together in a coherent manner.

I was enjoying the story and was curious as to where in the world it was going, but in order to continue I had to go to my computer and begin to keep an ordered cast of characters and genealogical charts in order to have any idea of who I was reading about. For me there were just too too many characters to keep track of. We follow 3 to 5 generations of each family, and at least in the case of the Chinese family we go all the way back to China more than a hundred years ago. The African family we pick up as the eldest member who is a figure in this story, was taken in slavery in Africa and brought to Cuba. The Spanish family we pick up in mid-19th century Cuba.

Of course the further complexity is that eventually these three families merge, and on top of that we have the entire story of Cecilia and her friends and her love affair and all going on in Miami. It was so complex and the author just didnít pull it off for me.

Given that she had so much to tell of these families going back into the mid-19th century, she also had to skip significant periods of time, or at least thought she did. I was reading along and all of a sudden a new chapter would begin and we were 5-10 or so years on in time, and had switched families. I was driven back to my cheat sheet and writing numbers of years and such in the margins to figure out who was who is this/these family/families. It was just too much.

Yet I was fascinated enough to keep reading. There were some gripping things about the tale, and incredible imagination on the part of the author to balance not only this enormous cast of human characters, but several other-worldly creatures who lived with the female members of this huge family and the role that the ghost house plays in it all. Added to that is the story of Cubaís tortured history, especially after the mid-20th century.

The strategy and plot are as grand and ambitious as any Iíve read, but in the end I was just a bit overwhelmed and under impressed. It wouldnít be a book I would highly recommend, however, if one wants to venture into a book hugely into magical realism and family histories, which, along the way reveals a great deal about Cuban history, then itís worth a read. In that case, in my notes I do have a set of family trees. Drop me an e-mail and Iíll send those to you!

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett