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Book Review: “The Mortifications”, 5/5 Stars

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The Mortifications by Derek Palacio

Edition: Hardcover (308 pages)

Published on: October 4, 2016 (Tim Duggan Books)

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Goodreads Summary:

In 1980, a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación—father, husband, political insurgent—refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife Soledad takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami’s familiar heat, Soledad pushes further north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.

Each struggles and flourishes in their own way: Isabel, spiritually hungry and desperate for higher purpose, finds herself tethered to death and the dying in uncanny ways. Ulises is bookish and awkwardly tall, like his father, whose memory haunts and shapes the boy’s thoughts and desires. Presiding over them both is Soledad. Once consumed by her love for her husband, she begins a tempestuous new relationship with a Dutch tobacco farmer. But just as the Encarnacións begin to cultivate their strange new way of life, Cuba calls them back. Uxbal is alive, and waiting.

Excerpt from Page 82:

Ulises went on like this for thirteen days, and only twice did librarians as him to read silently to himself. When they asked, they asked meekly, and Ulises thought it was because of his size, but really his voice–a tenor born from a mother’s Cuban accent, a teenage American English, and an abundant, consistent dose of Catholic Latin–sounded so strange and carried so beautifully throughout the library basement that it seemed a shame to ask him to stop. More important, Ulises had drawn a crowd by the thirteenth day, and the audience–at first just three to four other classics students, though soon enough also a handful of sophomore dramatists as well as a modest pod of junior rhetoricians–through their presence and rapture, legitimized Ulises’s performance. The crowd, which continued to grow in spurts, seated themselves at a distance from Ulises, forming a long semicircle around his wing chair.

Don’t sit so close, they told one another. It might disturb the Titan.

My thoughts:

Every once in awhile you pick up a book and start reading, and that process becomes a journey. This was my experience with The Mortifications by Derek Palacio. I started this novel with mixed expectations. It is Palacio’s debut. He is Cuban-American. It is about immigration. These are the facts I knew going into this read. On page 5 I stopped and told my brother, “This is a really amazing book.” It starts out so strong, with a gorgeous discussion of fate and how one of the characters doesn’t believe in it. The foreshadowing was palpable. I was so ready after these first five pages.

As I continued on, I got a bit wary. Around page 30, I could not quite understand the writing style. It might be the most omniscient book I’ve ever read. It’s almost like seeing in the the minds of every character in the story at the exact same time. The narrative moved back and forth between characters so quickly. It wasn’t like focusing on two or three characters, but everyone in the scope of the narrative. I was thrown a bit. I didn’t know where this story was going to go, and the writing style made it feel impersonal to me. However, by page 50, I had forgotten I had any complaints.

I think the impersonal, omniscient perspective is entirely necessary for this story. It is startling and uncomfortable; it doesn’t let us as readers get close to any one character. We know them all, all of their disturbing yet beautiful thoughts and actions. This became an immense strength for the novel.

Palacio brings his characters to life-gritty, dirty, sexual, spiritual, real life. And in doing this, he brings all immigrants to life. His characters experience and constant tugging of their hearts, spirits, and minds. They are being pulled between America and Cuba. They are living one life in Connecticut and one in Buey Arriba. They represent the souls of every Latinx immigrant and they bring them all to life. The cover of this novel perfectly represents this idea: the book weaves the perspectives of all of its characters into a tapestry of the overarching immigrant spirit.

There are many things within these pages that might turn people off. There is something amorphous and supernatural about this book. There is some very subtle magical realism involved. There were moments where I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take from the scene. There were story arches that were much more metaphorical than they were literal. This book should be read as a piece of art, as an abstract painting that conveys an overall emotion. That emotion of that of the human spirit.

Palacio’s book is very Catholic in nature as well. One of its main themes explores the validity of every facet of Catholicism. The novel juxtaposes carnal desire with spiritual desire in a way that captures the central themes of Catholicism. The religious nature of the book might turn some off, but for me, it was absolutely fascinating and beautifully tied in with the culture of the story.

This book is graphic. It is sexual. This could turn people off as well, but for me, it was one of the main draws of the novel. It was carnal and dirty. It was distinctly human. It was art in its grittiest and realest form.

And I absolutely devoured it. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone; in fact I am hesitant to recommend it to anyone, because I don’t want anyone to love it less than I do. I am totally in love with The Mortifications and I cannot wait to see more from Derek Palacio.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to Derek Palacio for this amazing debut.

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