The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo

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.

26 comments

  1. I’ve only ever read one book about Cuba, Che Guevara’s Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War (1956-58). That revolution was necessary – yet another corrupt dictatorship propped up by America, and the outcome was interesting. If communist states weren’t under constant attack from the US … Well of course they always will be. There is no way big business is going to allow workers in the west to see a functioning workers democracy.
    I’m glad this book discusses the earlier revolutions, of which I was entirely unaware. Now we need someone to write the Indigenous perspective.

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  2. Well I too am ignorant of Cuban history so thanks for this post, it’s informed me and sparked my curiosity. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction but every now and then I read one that I like – I especially like it when I start Googling things in the book, that’s when I know I’ve hit on something good. Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection Almost Famous Women comes to mind – loved that one.

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    • I almost never read historical fiction. It always seems like some difficult love story because the situation is hard — a war, a famine, the 1950s (ew) — rather than a story about literally anything else.

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  3. ok so your mention of her being a storyteller, having experience telling stories to men while they worked in factories made me remember when I visited cuba and went on a tour of a cigar factory, which is where this tradition started apparently? People hired to read the paper, read books, or simply tell stories to the men and women while they worked. Makes sense-I wonder if they use audiobooks now?

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    • I didn’t know this was a real job. It almost seems like they would use a radio instead, especially if they have a station that shares news, something NPR-like. It’s possible there wasn’t an established radio station. I hope they play audiobooks, but can you imagine working somewhere and the audiobook is a story you just hate?! You’d be invested because otherwise you’d be bored, but you might be mad the whole time, too.

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  4. This sounds a fascinating and well-done read. I haven’t read much about Cuba though I know a few things about the country now thanks to a friend of mine who went there, in later years, met a guy, brought him to the UK and married him (he had a terrible time getting back here, though).

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    • Aside from the fact that the U.S. didn’t want Americans to go to Cuba and cut off all relations with the country, the most I knew was about famous writers, especially African Americans, who would take a flight out of the U.S. to, typically, somewhere in Europe and then from there go to Cuba. Many discussed the warmth with which they were greeted. There’s always been a big freedom/worker’s rights movement that I’ve known of. I just didn’t know how far back it went, and The Distant Marvels is older historically than what I’m used to.

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  5. Interesting note about maybe liking historical fiction more if it focused on characters rather than events. Usually character-focused historical fiction seems to be a fictionalization of some real famous person, in which case they’re either famous for doing something good in a turbulent time or are notable for doing something bad, both of which brings us back to the book including unpleasant events. But also, are there historical times when things were just… going well? Seems like every era has its downfall. The only title that comes right to mind is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which tells the story of a (fictional) Hollywood star’s life across her decades of fame. The time period itself is not so bad (no wars or crop failure or sinking ships in focus, at least), the main tension of the novel comes from the hoops she has to jump through in the movie industry and her relationships with the seven men, whom she marries for various reasons. Wondering if you’ve read this one or if it sounds more in the ballpark of the type of historical fiction you might be looking for?

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  6. This does sound like something I would be interested in as I do generally enjoy historical fiction. As you say, I appreciate it when authors provide enough information to follow along with while googling to fill in gaps. I don’t know much about Cuba before the 20th century either.

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    • It’s interesting to have the “current” plot line (when Castro is in power) combined with the past at the turn of the 20th century because the Castro section is recognizable (he sure was in power a long time) and the older story is new (to me, anyway).

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      • I’ll admit there are a lot of gaps in my knowledge about Cuba, even within my own life time. Right now I’m reading a book that deals with the Spanish conquest of Mexico and realizing how little I know about that too.

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        • I’m starting to wonder why it’s the tiny countries that feel the need to take over the really big ones, and how the heck that happens other than guns. I’m reading about white settlers who went to Australia and are killing, enslaving, and removing children from Aboriginal tribes. Again, big huge place, little tiny conquerors. In this case, though, I see some of the tribal elders are curious about the white settlers because many bring reliable food sources, so the elders consider moving their tribes toward settlements. I’m interested to see how it goes (I’m not yet done).

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          • My guess is that a lot of it comes to weaponry. If you have guns and cannons, you can dominate those who have shorter range weapons. And maybe it has to do with smaller country size too, like nations feeling the need for more space and so thinking they’re entitled to take it wherever they can.

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  7. I sometimes like historical fiction but I’m very picky about it – it needs to strike a balance between worldbuilding and information overload, and I think that’s tricky to do. Basically, I want the author to have done tonnes of research, but not for it to seem like they’re showing me all their research – which I think I have rarely seen done well. This does sound quite up my street, though!

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