Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel

Immigrants are highly visible in the news right now, both legal and illegal. We talk about the effect of immigration on jobs, taxes, health care and education costs, infrastructure, and more. But the emotional cost of leaving your home for another country, perhaps forever, is rarely examined in depth. Patricia Engel's novel, The Veins of the Ocean, addresses life as an immigrant, the bonds of family, and a loyalty that stretches beyond country and beyond death.

Reina Castillo came to the US from Colombia as a baby. After discovering his wife's infidelity, her father, Hector, threw her older brother off a bridge in Miami.  Young Carlito was saved by a fisherman who jumped in after the child. Although it didn't happen to her, this is the central fact of Reina's life, indeed of her whole family's life. When Carlito, in his turn, throws his girlfriend's daughter off a bridge, the child is not saved. Hector committed suicide while in prison for his actions. Carlito spent years on death row for his, with Reina visiting him dutifully for that entire stretch of time until he too died in prison. Cut loose from her vigil and mourning the loss of her beloved older brother, a man no one else would grieve because of his terrible crime, Reina moves to the Florida Keys where she tries to move on with her life, meeting Nestor, a Cuban refugee with his own sad history.

Reina and Nestor are both leery of relationships with others, both having lost so much. Both are still deeply tied to their countries of origin and the people and places they've left behind, there and here. Their slow, almost offhand, developing connection to each other is tenuous. They are afraid to fully commit because of the cost of their already existing family bonds and each of them needs to figure out how they can break free of the real and created prisons of their lives. They contend with guilt and despair, grief, love, and loyalty, loneliness and poverty. The freedom of the open ocean and the contrasting captive dolphins at the center where both Nestor and Reina work are powerful allegories for the place in which they each find themselves and for which they are each searching.

About a third of the novel focuses on Reina, her childhood, her past, and her connection with her brother. The rest of the novel focuses on her life after Carlito's death and her fragile relationship with a damaged Nestor. The narration is slow and contemplative, almost dreamy and drifting in places. The characters are scarred and lost. The story aches with hurt, sorrow, and a feeling of displacement. It's dark and complicated and sometimes frustrating, much in the way that life can be. Readers who are drawn to family dysfunction or to immigrant stories or to character driven narratives will find much to think about in these pages.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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