Despite her name, the only thing royal about Reina Castillo’s life is the mess she has made of it. The heroine-narrator of Patricia Engel’s new novel, The Veins of the Ocean, Reina is a young Miami-raised Colombian American whose longest relationship has been with unhappiness. But fiction is a fount of second chances. After the latest in a series of family tragedies, she reconnects with the world and, more importantly, her heart, which has lost its metaphorical meaning.
“The most beautiful stories always start with wreckage,” Jack London wrote, and in Engel’s fast-paced, irresistibly alluring chapters, the demolition ball swings wildly. We are told that Reina’s father threw her older brother, Carlito, off the Rickenbacker Bridge when he was a baby, after learning of his wife’s adultery.
Carlito miraculously survived, their father killed himself in prison. Twenty years later, history repeats itself. Carlito throws his girlfriend’s baby (by another man) off the same bridge, for the same reason. This time the angels are busy getting their wings groomed. Carlito is convicted of first-degree murder.
Abusive and insensitive, he was hardly an ideal sibling. But Reina’s bar is pretty low; at least he never molested her “like the brothers of some of my friends.” And she is guilt-ridden over her complicity in his heinous act. She devotes herself entirely to Carlito. But after he dies, she moves to the Keys for a fresh start.
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There she meets Nesto, a recently arrived Cuban immigrant with problems of his own. Reina’s affairs have always been temporary and loveless. But Nesto does not belong on her sordid list of users and losers. Gradually, she allows herself to dream of a future where she is not, for once, alone, her “only witness” to the passing of her days.
Engel’s novel reaffirms her talent, which was first displayed in her story collection Vida, and which has grown with each succeeding book (she’s also the author of the novel It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris). Her style was originally stripped-down, more bone than flesh. But novels encourage you to indulge your appetite for words. Engel’s voice is lyrical, in a no-nonsense sort of way. Her descriptive powers have improved greatly; she has an all-seeing eye that misses nothing of importance for the reader.
Her themes are richer, too. Engel demonstrates a finely textured comprehension of the wretched of the earth, which she neither idealizes nor pities.
Reina’s family is so dysfunctional, they would give the Gallaghers on Shameless a run for their liquor money. But every brutal revelation is measured with compassion. “We’re not of ritual and celebrations,” Reina says. “We are people who live day by day.” This hand-to-mouth existence does not lend itself to the tut-tutting of middle-class moralists. Engel does not care if we like her characters. She just wants us to understand them.
Clearly she did a considerable amount of research for this novel. What is it like in prison? How are dolphins treated in an aquarium? (One of Reina’s jobs.) Engel has the answers. When she talks about Nesto’s experiences in Cuba, she knows whereof she speaks. Along with Miami and Key West, we are given a tour of Havana. Cartagena also makes an appearance, and Engel’s observations of that city are telling and informative.
At around midpoint the pace turns sluggish. You may feel discouraged; have patience, the speed will pick up again. Some of you may express incredulity at Reina’s command of language. How can a high school dropout with no demonstrated interest in reading compose such beautiful sentences? She should be giving lectures at a university, not painting nails. You will just have to suspend your disbelief.
“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” T.S. Eliot asked. The Veins of the Ocean is a tale of redemption and restoration that believes forgiveness is unattainable until one forgives oneself. And the awful burden of knowledge can be lifted through storytelling, the transference of memory into narrative, an essential duty, “if only to tell someone else one day what was, what could have been, and what will never be again.”
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.