Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Have a safe Memorial Day Weekend!

Two new novels investigate what makes magic, what is real and imagined

NPR

In an enchanted world, where does mystery begin? Two authors pose this question in new novels out this spring.

In Pages of Mourning by the Mexican magical realism interrogator-author Diego Gerard Morrison, the protagonist is a Mexican writer named Aureliano Más II who is at war with his memory of familial sorrow and — you guessed it — magical realism. And the protagonist Alma Cruz in Julia Alvarez's latest novel, The Cemetery of Untold Stories, is also a writer. Alma seeks to bury her unpublished stories in a graveyard of her own making, in order to find peace in their repose — and meaning from the vulnerability that comes from unheard stories.

Both of these novels, one from an emerging writer and one from a long celebrated author, walk an open road of remembering love, grief, and fate. Both find a destiny not in death, but in the reality of abandonment and in dreams that come from a hope for reunion. At this intersection of memory and meaning, their storytelling diverges.

Pages of Mourning

Pages of Mourning, out this month, is set in 2017, three years after 43 students disappear from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College after being abducted in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. The main character, Aureliano, is attempting to write the Great Mexican Novel that reflects this crisis and his mother's own unexplained disappearance when he was a boy. He's also struggling with the idea of magical realism as literary genre — he holds resentment over being named after the protagonist in 100 Years of Solitude, which fits squarely within it. He sets out on a journey with his maternal aunt to find his father, ask questions about his mother, and deal with his drinking problem and various earthquakes.

Morrison's voice reflects his work as a writer, editor and translatorbased in Mexico City, who seeks to interrogate "the concept of dissonance" through blended art forms such as poetry and fiction, translation and criticism. His story could be seen as an archetype, criticism, or a reflection through linguistic cadence on Pan American literature. His novel name drops and alludes to American, Mexican and Latin American writers including Walt Whitman, Juan Rulfo, Gabriel Garcia Márquez — and even himself. There's an earnest use of adjectives to accompany the lived dissonance of his characters.

There's nothing magical, in the genre sense, in Morrison's story. There are no magical rivers, enchanted messages, babies born with tails. Morrison's dissonance is real — people get disappeared, they suffer addictions, writer's block, crazy parents, crazier shamans, blank pages, corruption, the loss of loved ones. In this depiction of real Pan-American life — because all of this we are also explicitly suffering up North — Morrison finds his magic. His Aureliano is our Aureliano. He's someone we know. Probably someone we loved — someone trying so hard to live.

The Cemetery of Untold Stories

From the author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, The Cemetery of Untold Stories is Julia Alvarez's seventh novel. It's a story that's both languorous and urgent in conjuring a world from magical happenings. The source of these happenings, in a graveyard in the Dominican Republic, is the confrontation between memories and lived agendas. Alvarez is an acclaimed storyteller and teacher, a writer of poetry, non-fiction and children's books, honored in 2013 with the National Medal of Arts. She continues her luminous virtuosity with the story of Alma Cruz.

Alma, the writer at the heart of The Cemetery of Untold Stories, has a goal - not to go crazy from the delayed promise of cartons of unpublished stories she has stored away. When she inherits land in her origin country — the Dominican Republic — she decides to retire there, and design a graveyard to bury her manuscript drafts, along with the characters whose fictional lives demand their own unrequited recompense. Her sisters think she's nuts, and wasting their inheritance. Filomena, a local woman Alma hires to watch over the cemetery, finds solace in a steady paycheck and her unusual workplace.

Alma wants peace for herself and her characters. But they have their own agendas and, once buried, begin to make them known: They speak to each other and Filomena, rewriting and revising Alma's creativity in order to reclaim themselves.

In this new story, Alvarez creates a world where everyone is on a quest to achieve a dream — retirement, literary fame, a steady job, peace of mind, authenticity. Things get complicated during the rewrites, when ambitions and memories bump into the reality of no money, getting arrested, no imagination, jealousy, and the grace of humble competence. Alma's sisters, Filomena, the townspeople — all make a claim over Alma's aspiration to find a final resting place for her memories. Alvarez sprinkles their journey with dialogue and phrases in Spanish and one — "no hay mal que por bien no venga" (there is goodness in every woe) — emerges as the oral talisman of her story. There is always something magical to discover in a story, and that is especially true in Alvarez's landing place.

Marcela Davison Avilés is a writer and independent producer living in Northern California.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Marcela Davison Avilés