María Sirena is 82 years old and living on a coast in Cuba. The current year is 1963 — Castro’s Cuba — and a hurricane is bearing down on the island. Although she refuses to leave her home because she is both ill with cancer and has recently received an important and revealing letter about her past, the Cuban military fetches people out of their homes and moves them to shelter, even if they don’t want to. It is in this shelter that María Sirena huddles with several women to wait out the hurricane. To pass time, she tells them the story of her life, including her birth on a ship headed for Cuba, imprisonment by the ship’s captain for fourteen years, joining the Cuba resistance against Spain while living in a bohío, falling in love with a teen-age “un negro” soldier, imprisonment in an reconcentration camp, and a long search for her son. Thus is the overall synopsis of The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo.
Firstly, Acevedo’s book educated me on the larger history of Cuba. In the U.S. we’re hyper focused on shutting down trade with Castro’s Cuba, so I didn’t know much about the country before that. The Spanish continued to bring slaves to colonized Cuba long after the U.S. abolished slavery, and according to the book synopsis, the setting of María Sierna’s youth is “Cuba’s Third War of Independence.” I didn’t know they had any independence wars and stupidly found myself Googling “which people lived in Cuba before Spain colonized it?” Colonization started in 1492 with Columbus, which led to conquest by Spain. The original people were Aboriginal groups called the Guanahatabey, Ciboney, and Taíno. Both María Sirena’s parents are fighting for Cuban independence, led by the real-life poet José Martí (source). Any book that has enough information for me to follow along and be willing to Google to fill in the gaps, and I can make sense of it (any time period too long or tangled makes me lose interest when Googling doesn’t help) is the kind of fiction that both humanizes the people from the period and educates.
Given that María Sirena’s story starts with imprisonment followed by guerrilla fighting and then a reconcentration camp, there are lots of sad moments in The Distant Marvels, including the deaths of several characters, sexual assault, and starvation. However, Acevedo writes in such a way that you understand what’s happening without including unbearable graphic details. I got it, but I was never overly-uncomfortable, allowing me to stay in the story and hear these minority voices. The author’s choice may stem from her decision to have María Sirena narrate; remember, she’s telling her life to a group of women sheltering in a hurricane who are afraid.
Although The Distant Marvels is largely set around 1900, you don’t forget that the present is 1963. María Sirena notes what her present life is like in Cuba:
We’ve grown accustomed to strange rules in this new Cuba — what we can buy or sell is decided in Havana, and we can’t leave the island at all without permission. Rubber stamps have taken on the power of gods here.
In a country in flux, the people still attempt to find happiness. As María Sirena tells her story, and when a scene ends with a chapter break, the next chapter opens with the other women in the room guessing what happens next. They always choose something positive: a reunion, a long trip, a friendship. Unfortunately, María Sirena often cannot deliver on their hopes, but because she is a trained story teller (she used to tell stories in a factory as entertainment while men worked), she heightens and reduces the emotion of the story in such a way that it’s never overwhelming, never a traumatic bottomless well.
If you’re thinking, “Hey, why doesn’t Melanie sound like she’s glowing about this book when she didn’t write anything negative about it?” that’s because I wasn’t aware, based on the description I originally read, that this is historical fiction. In my experience, historical fiction tends to focus on turbulent times, and it would probably be my jam if authors set books in the past when things were going well and let the tension come from the characters instead of politics/war/slavery/genocide/a boat sinking/oppression/failing crops/etc.. Do you like historical fiction? You’re likely to love The Distant Marvels.