Let us now praise short-fiction collections: Last year yielded a bumper crop — Gish Jen's "Thank You, Mr. Nixon," Jonathan Escoffery's "If I Survive You" and George Saunders' "Liberation Day" — daring work that energized that most American literary form. If Patricia's Engel's luminous, assured "The Faraway World" is any indication, we're in for more bounty in 2023.
The Colombian American author of "Infinite Country," Engel delves into diasporas large and small. Set in New Jersey and Miami, Havana and Bogotá, these pieces are all narrated in first person, a twist that broadens her storytelling rather than narrowing it. In the haunting "Aida," a suburban teenager probes the disappearance of her identical twin and the dissolution of her immigrant family. "The Bones of Cristóbal Colón" untangles a Gordian knot of death and desire. In "Fausto," a young woman falls under the spell of a cocaine smuggler, jeopardizing her future.
These characters limn the chains that bind men and women, colonialism and power. "Campoamor" depicts an impoverished Lothario as he juggles relationships amid the sodden decay of his native Cuba; Engel's finely calibrated sentences recall Junot Díaz's Spanglish.
"We walked past the street thieves, the walls of garbage, and into the theater through a gap that had been ripped through the wooden door blocks ... we were at the base of the old theater's concrete horseshoe, overgrown with plants, even trees, and I thought of my grandmother's old stories about the place, where she'd come to hear her first zarzuela when Havana was still grand and beautiful, before its shredding and abandonment and exodus."
While less overtly political than, say, Julianne Pachico's "The Lucky Ones," civil wars haze the horizons of "The Faraway World." Engel plumbs the hypocrisies of church and state, yet also reaffirms a mystical faith, from compassionate priests such as Padre Andrade in "Ramiro," to the penitent Margarita, who accepts an offer from the unhappily partnered Mago to chauffeur her around Havana's basilicas, sparking a romance that may or may not spirit them away.
"I was already driving along the seawall, the waves spiking over the Malecón, covering the avenue in liquid sheen," Mago says. "Flor's calls didn't cease until I turned the phone off, parking the car at our usual corner on Prado, waiting for my favorite face to emerge from the shadows of the archways. I knew she would come. I knew she, too, had found some small sense of refuge in the space of the almendrón that she would find difficult to surrender ... she was a girl bold enough to have faith in the unseen."
Engel places her own faith in the story behind each story; what shimmers off the page is as vital as the pieces themselves. She gracefully weaves the quiet despair of individual lives with the fury of social upheaval. With its dreamy, ephemeral title, "The Faraway World" hints at what lies beyond our grasp; and yet it grounds our fates in our own hands.
A contributing books editor for Oprah Daily, Hamilton Cain reviews for a range of venues, including the Star Tribune, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.
The Faraway World
By: Patricia Engel.
Publisher: Avid Reader Press, 224 pages, $26.