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Spirits of the Ordinary: A Tale of Casas Grandes Hardcover – January 1, 1997
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Kathleen Alcalá's first novel, Spirits of the Ordinary, opens in 1870s Mexico where Zacarias Caraval abandons his family and the religion of his fathers--Judaism--to search for gold in the desert. His wife, Estela, responds by declaring herself independent and taking a lover--an action frowned upon in the small village of Saltillo. Zacarias's wanderings take him into the mountains of Northern Mexico and to the cliff dwellings of Casas Grandes, where he witnesses a massacre--an event that will have a profound affect on him and will eventually send him back to the faith he has abandoned. Spirits of the Ordinary is the first book of a projected trilogy and judging by the quality of Ms. Alcalá's work so far, the next two volumes will be eagerly awaited.
From Publishers Weekly
In her first novel, Alcala (author of the story collection Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist) has crafted a fecund fable about the convergence of cultures?Mexican, American and Jewish?along the Mexico/Texas border. The Carabajal family clandestinely practices their Jewish faith in a northern Mexican village of the 1870s. Julio spends his days in his secret Hebraic library; his wife, Mariana, hasn't uttered a word since childhood; and their son, Zacarias, who'd rather prospect for gold than learn a trade, has married a Catholic woman, Estela. Estela's family has a few secrets of their own: an intensely independent woman, Estela has raised her family single-handedly during her husband's long gold-hunting absences and has decided to cut him off financially; her younger brother and sister, twins, have been banished to Texas because of their scandalous androgyny; her unmarried daughter is pregnant; and now her own love affair with an army captain is about to be exposed, while her Zacarias is being hunted by the government for inciting a purported Indian uprising. In the tradition of Latin American literary fabulism, Alcala's seductive writing mixes fatalism and hope, logic and fantasy, to create moral, emotional and political complexities. But her characterizations and plot sparkle with a freshness that is an apt fit for the new social order she writes about with a multicultural vision notable for its lack of preachiness. Readers will be happy to learn that this enchanting episode is the first of a trilogy.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Now to postpone the rest of my life so I can read the next in the trilogy (Flower in the Skull) more quickly
On its dust jacket, the novel is described in terms of other authors of epic and mystic Hispanic fiction (Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Luis Borges), which is why I chose to read it.
Alcala does a beautiful job of giving the novel a sense of place in both Old Mexico and New Mexico. Her characters are engaging and complex. Her writing style is, indeed, reminiscent of more established (indeed legendary) Hispanic authors. Perhaps this is why I was so disappointed in the novel itself. For the first two-thirds or so, the novel progresses wonderfully and draws you into the lives of these remarkable characters. It's in the last third that, for me, it all falls apart. The end of the novel wraps up too quickly compared to the pace established at the beginning with many of the characters' stories being finished unsatisfactorily, or not at all (some characters simply are not mentioned again.
I have just read that this is the first novel of a trilogy, so perhaps the next two will pick up the threads of some of the missing characters' lives. Unfortunately, when I initially read the book I don't remember any indication that it was one of three so I was expecting it to stand on its own and it didn't quite do that. So, while I thought it was a good book, I was disappointed because I was expecting a great book. I'm still undecided as to whether or not to read the second book in the trilogy when/if it is available.
Set in the late 19th century, the book essentially is the story of one man-born a Jew, married into a large Catholic family, so estranged from both he lives essentially alone prospecting for gold in the mountains of old Mexico-who eventually becomes the equivalent of a shaman to and for the indiginious Indian communities in Northern Mexico/Southern New Mexico.
Alcala hits the righ tone by introducing her mysticim indirectly and in a low key--the requisite angels, spirits and revelations are present, but are a complement to rather than the focus of the basic story.
The book exhibits flaws common to the debut novel--sometimes disjointed, major characters a bit too out of focus, minor characters given too much play, etc., but the genuiness of the story, the aura of mysticims established, the overll quality of the writing and the extraordinary bredth of the core characters more than compensate for these weaknesses.
Overall, this was one of the best novels I'e read this year and I highly recommend it.