Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Cristina Henriquez's The World in Half

Cristina Henriquez has won great praise for her short stories and her debut collection, Come Together, Fall Apart. The World in Half is her first novel, and what a stunner of a novel it is!

Henriquez weaves together the poignant stories of a military-wife mother whose infidelity with a Panamanian local sent her back to the U.S. pregnant, divorced, and disgraced to a hard, self-isolated life and a daughter who is dealing with that mother's early onset Alzheimer's when she discovers a hidden cache of letters from her missing Panamanian father who, rather than abandoning her and her mother, had been abandoned. The daughter, Miraflores, impulsively drops out of college to visit Panama to find her father as her mother disintegrates daily. Miraflores' search in Panama pieces together the story of her parents' love affair, even as she falls in love with the more experienced, if not much older, Danilo, a flower vendor who has taken her and her romantic quest under his wing.

In Panama, it becomes apparent that Mira is searching for herself and her mother as much as for her father. Panama itself becomes a character in this book, for Mira is learning about this unknown country that is as much a part of her heritage as the U.S. is--and she is falling in love with Panama just as she is with Danilo, who has been deserted by his own parents. She feels herself becoming a different person in Panama from the guarded bookworm she has been in the States. In Panama, she is a fuller, braver version of Mira.

As Mira's search for her father reaches a climax, so does her mother's deterioration. She must leave Panama to take up her familial duties once more. The question for the reader is, will she follow in her mother's sad footsteps and leave Danilo and Panama forever behind, as well?

Within this romantic structure, Henriquez deals with some serious issues--the desire of children of mixed heritages to claim both, racial and ethnic discrimination, the sad history of Panama's repeated colonizations, the fears of Alzheimer's engendered in the children of its sufferers, the nature of passionate love so binding that it lasts through years of denial and destroys lives.
At the end, she doesn't tie things up neatly, but neither does she leave the reader in despair for the lives of these people she has led us to care for. Henriquez and her book specialize in the quiet strength, endurance, and occasional rewards of hope, and that hope is her gift to the reader.

This is the debut of a novelist to watch for. I can't wait to read her next book. Check out The World in Half here. And happy reading.

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