Sometimes, Derek Palacio seems to argue, you can go home again. That’s the theme of his debut novel, “The Mortifications,” as a mother takes her two children from their father and from rural Cuba during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, and then all three find their way back, more or less, years later.
Although steeped in realism, Palacio’s narrative at times seems to aspire to the allegorical and mythic. From the title itself, he signals his interest in the spiritual, in the notion of sacrifice, particularly the sway our bodies and our interest in things of the world have on our actions.
The saga of the Encarnación family’s odyssey opens with Soledad, the mother, planning an escape from Cuba. Her desperate move is driven neither by the family’s poverty nor the instability of the Castro regime, which she expects to fail. Instead, it is her concern for the well-being of her “pensive” 12-year-old son, Ulises, who had been given a “sailor’s name’’ by his father. “Bookworms were considered faggots,” she knew, “and she cringed at the thought of him in prison, or worse, in a rehabilitation camp.” Her husband, Uxbal, sees no need to flee and resists until Soledad threatens her son’s life. Soledad, Ulises, and his twin sister, Isabel, then sail off from the only home they have ever known, leaving Uxbal behind.
Settling with her children in Hartford, as cold and foreign a place as the three can imagine, Soledad, who feels guilty over her actions, does what she can to foster stability. She finds work as a court stenographer and works diligently, sacrificing any chance of personal fulfillment to advance her children. Until, that is, she meets a Dutch horticulturalist, Henri Willems, whose court case involves Cuban tobacco, which he farms in the Connecticut River Valley. Soon, they begin an affair whose repercussions change the course of all their lives.
Although he never entirely abandons his studies, Ulises learns to farm and to love the tobacco that Henri raises. He also starts to grow, which wouldn’t be unusual except that he doesn’t stop, eventually becoming nearly a giant. Meanwhile, Isabel, already a devout Catholic, becomes increasingly religious, in part because of her mother’s renewed carnal appetites and in part because of vows she made to the father they left behind.
When Isabel has a mystical experience, holding a dying boy who has fallen through the ice of a frozen pond and falling dangerously ill herself, she decides that she has been called to help the dying on their final journey. Isabel devotes herself to this work until suspicions rise that the 17-year-old girl may actually be killing her charges, driving her to the relative safety of convent life and later back to Cuba, where Ulises — and ultimately Soledad and even Henri — will follow. All take up a search for Uxbal and the remains of the life they left behind.
As a family saga, “The Mortifications” has more than enough to sustain it. Palacio writes vividly, conjuring smells and tastes of life both in the frozen north and the tropical Caribbean, from the sweat of a nun, for whom expensive soap might prompt “inclinations toward vanity” to the flavor of tobacco and tomatoes. At times, this third-person narrative sounds deceptively simple. “God is only as tall as the tomato vine, Uxbal said. Ulises understood his father in this way: God lives only where there is life.”
A bit too often, however, Palacio veers into a kind of magical realism that seems more interested in ideas than characters, particularly when the family once again lands in Cuba. As Isabel sets out into the jungle and her brother wanders, lost, the story drags. Is the symbolism biblical? Or are Ulises and Isabel Cuba? Or perhaps stand-ins for every immigrant, or every person who has ever sought to return?
Only when Soledad returns to Cuba does the story regain its focus. In one particularly beautiful passage, Ulises remembers an incident from childhood when their family had helped a neighbor and were making a long and tiring walk home. Isabel had tripped, “her face was clay, the dust of the road clinging to the skin wet with tears,” her brother recalls. Their mother had comforted her and then reached out to her tired son as well, using her wet, muddy finger to make the sign of the cross on his forehead. In this way, Palacio evokes both family and faith, as he writes: “She brought his hand into her own and took the children home.” It is this journey that Ulises hopes to recreate, as they all struggle to find their way back once more.
By Derek Palacio
Crown/Tim Duggan, 310 pp., $27
Clea Simon, a novelist and freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.