"The circle of myth, history, longing, and grief in Song of the Water Saints will envelop the reader as it does the lives of Nelly Rosario's beautifully realized characters."
--Maureen Howard, author of A Lover's Almanac
Poetic, transporting, and heartbreaking, this debut novel traces the lives of three generations of courageous Dominican women.
First there is Graciela: a young girl rebelling against the strictures of her poor, rural life in the Dominican Republic in the early 1900s, she searches for her true destiny even as it lures her away from her husband and baby daughter. . . . Then there is Mercedes, passionately devoted to the Church, who rears herself after the death of her beloved stepfather, eventually marrying and moving with her husband to New York City, where she will bring up her granddaughter. . . . Coming of age in the freewheeling 1990s--and bringing the story full circle--Leila has without a doubt inherited the restless genes of great-grandmother Graciela. . . .
The intimate details of life in New York and the Dominican Republic, the broad strokes of history, the subtleties of familial connection amid changing notions of home and obligation--all are rendered with grace and gritty realism in this remarkably accomplished novel.
Four generations of Dominican woman are poetically evoked in this impressively assured first novel. The vibrant, superstitious culture of the Dominican Republic enlivens a tale that favors style over plot. As a restless young woman, Graciela is photographed in a compromising position with her first love by a yanqui man; though she marries the boy, Silvio, he never quite commits to her and, after he dies barely two years later, she never really gets over him. Her new man, Casimiro steady and a good father to her difficult daughter, Mercedes still cannot tame her. Her restlessness makes Graciela leave her little family; guilt and loneliness cause her to return after six weeks, but with a problem that ultimately ends her life. Teenaged Mercedes takes over the local grocery and marries Andres, a green-eyed dwarf. Decades fly by, and Mercedes and Andres follow the dream of a better life in the U.S. with their son and granddaughter. Though the language is gorgeous and the setting vividly rendered, the story suffers from a lack of direction and, after Graciela's death, character development is all but abandoned in the rushed final third of the book. The complex politics of the island are addressed, but only perfunctorily. Rosario has the potential to become a major novelist; she's one to watch, and this work is worthwhile for the voluptuous images alone. (Mar.) Forecast: Junot D!az, Cristina Garcia, Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat supply blurbs, and Rosario was named a Village Voice "Writer on the Verge." All of that will help sales, along with national print and radio features and a six-city author tour. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 08, 2003
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Excerpt from Song of the Water Saints by Nelly Rosario
Invasions - 1916
SANTO DOMINGO, REPuBLICA DOMINICANA
Graciela and Silvio stood hand in hand on El Malecon, sea breeze polishing their faces. Silvio hurled stones out to the waves and Graciela bunched up her skirt to search for more pebbles. Her knees were ashy and she wore her spongy hair in four knots. A rusty lard can filled with pigeon peas, label long worn from trips to the market, was by her feet. Silvio's straw hat was in Graciela's hands, and quickly, she turned to toss it to the water. The hat fluttered like a hungry seagull, then was lapped up by foam. Silvio's kiss pinned Graciela against the railing.
It was a hazy day. The hot kissing made Graciela squint against the silver light. Beyond her lashes, Silvio was a sepia prince.
-That yanqui over there's lookin' at us, he murmured into Graciela's mouth. He pulled out his hand from the rip in her skirt. Graciela turned to see a pink man standing a few yards away from them. She noticed that the yanqui wore a hat and a vest-he surely did not seem to be a Marine. When she was with Silvio, Graciela forgot to worry about anyone telling on her to Mai and Pai, much less panic over yanquis and their Marine boots scraping the cobblestones of the Colonial Quarter.
Passion burned stronger than fear. Graciela turned back to Silvio.
-Forget him. Her pelvis dug into his until she felt iron.
Graciela and Silvio were too lost in their tangle of tongues to care that a few yards away, the yanqui was glad for a brief break from the brutal sun that tormented his skin. With her tongue tracing Silvio's neck, Graciela couldn't care less that Theodore Roosevelt's "soft voice and big stick" on Latin America had dipped the yanqui the furthest south he had ever been from New York City. Silvio's hands crawled back into the rip in Graciela's skirt; she would not blush if she learned that the yanqui spying on them had already photographed the Marines stationed on her side of the island, who were there to "order and pacify," in all their debauchery; that dozens of her fellow Dominicans somberly populated the yanqui's photo negatives; and that the lush Dominican landscape had left marks on the legs of his tripod. Of no interest to a moaning Graciela were the picaresque postcard views that the yanqui planned on selling in New York and, he hoped, in France and Germany. And having always been poor and anonymous herself, Graciela would certainly not pity the yanqui because his still lifes, nature shots, images of battleships for the newspapers had not won him big money or recognition.
-Forget the goddamned yanqui, I said. Graciela squeezed Silvio's arm when his lips broke suction with hers.
-He's comin' over here, Silvio said. He turned away from Graciela to hide his erection against the seawall. Graciela watched the man approach them. He had a slight limp. Up close, she could see that his skin was indeed pink and his hair was a deep shade of orange. Graciela had never seen a real yanqui up close. She smiled and folded her skirt so that the rip disappeared.
The man pulled a handkerchief from his vest pocket and wiped his neck. He cleared his throat and held out his right hand, first to Silvio, then to Graciela. His handshake swallowed up Graciela's wrist, but she shook just as hard. In cornhashed Spanish the man introduced himself: Peter West, he was.
Peter. Silvio. Graciela. They were all happy to meet each other. The man leaned against the seawall and pulled out a wad of pesos from a pocket in his outer jacket. His eyes never left Graciela and Silvio.
-So, are you with the Marines? Silvio asked in an octave lower than usual, and Graciela had to smile secretly because her sepia prince was not yet old enough to wear long pants.