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.
Breathtaking, soulful, and profound, The Mortifications is an intoxicating family saga and a timely, urgent expression of longing for one’s true homeland.
The Mortifications by Derek Palacio
Publication Date: October 4, 2016 by Tim Duggan Books
great embarrassment and shame.
“they mistook my mortification for an admission of guilt”
the action of subduing one’s bodily desires.
“mortification of the flesh has a long tradition in some religions”
It seems important to know the meaning behind the title in also understanding the book. The Mortifications is a story of four family members struggling to find their own sense of purpose and happiness while also tending to the dysfunction of their relationships with one another.
The novel focuses primarily on Ulises – the son of Uxbal and Soledad – who as a child, is forced to leave his home and his father in Cuba in order to accompany his mother and sister, Isabel, to start a new life in a vastly different environment (Hartford, Connecticut). It clearly isn’t a coincidence that Ulises is loosely named after the Ulysses of the Roman myths – a hero whose epic journey home is recorded in The Odyssey.
The first portion of the novel focuses on the characters’ attempts to make a home and find a purpose in Hartford. All three seem to feel the void that has been left upon leaving their father and husband, Uxbal, in Cuba, but they are also fighting against those feelings of loss in their own ways. Soledad throws herself into her work while maintaining a household for her two children before ultimately finding solace in a new lover – Willems. Isabel finds purpose in her religious fervor and Ulises loses himself in books. Despite living together in a small house, it’s clear all three never truly feel a sense of togetherness and this idea of isolation only gets worse as the story progresses. At one point when it seems that all of these characters have found what they consider to be contentment, their world is shattered when Ulises receives a letter from his father, Uxbal.
For just a moment it brought Ulises a joy he could not recall experiencing, some version of fatherly love, but the letter, with Uxbal’s mayoral tenor, his carefree tone – as if Soledad had taken Ulises and Isabel to a cousin’s in Santiago and not to another country – was a vessel, and it had carried Ulises to the rim of a whirlpool, to a point where he could look down and see how black the tapering center was. He had forgotten, willingly, his father and home – Ulises read, ‘For I don’t deny I did the murder’ – but now he could sense the truth that Isabel, his twin, his counterpart, had perhaps always known: the heart sustains when the mind relents; the heart remembers what the mind forgets.
Knowing that their father is still alive, a new restlessness appears in Soledad, Ulises and Isabel. Having become a stand-in for Uxbal, Willems is left unsettled by this change in the family he has essentially adopted. His feelings of being the outsider are sad to witness and it becomes clear as the novel progresses, that the family’s disconnectedness is in part of being separated from Uxbal and Cuba – their idea of home.
You’re stretching yourself across the Atlantic. The result is a body in Hartford and a heart in Cuba. You can’t live in two places at once.
Ultimately, this is a heart wrenching story of a dysfunctional family struggling to maintain their relationships while also seeking independence from one another in their own attempts at finding contentment and happiness. Each character is flawed and far from perfect and that is what makes the story so powerful – it is an honest portrayal of the human experience.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.