Hero de Vera grew up in a prominent family in the Philippines and was preparing to be a doctor when she joined the New People’s Army, a communist group that rebelled against the Marcos government. During a stint in prison, her hands were badly broken, and rejected by her family, she goes to California to live with her brother, Pol. There, she becomes part of the Filipino community, falls in love with a woman named Rosalyn, and gradually heals.
Elaine Castillo’s debut novel focuses more on the mundane than the dramatic. The violence in Hero’s past appears in flashback and doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the many meals of pancit, day-to-day chores, wild parties, Rosalyn’s makeup skills, and videos and manga with her niece Roni. This is a book about Hero’s new life, where the old life is a ghost, always present and sometimes powerful, but something that could perhaps be allowed to fade away in peace.
The book is also concerned with the many different faces of the immigrant experience. Hero and Pol grew up wealthy, but now Pol works as a security guard, earning just enough to get by. His wife, Paz, who was poor in the Philippines, is the primary bread-winner, working two jobs as a nurse and generally running the family, making decisions about where their daughter Roni will go to school and whether it’s appropriate for her to see a faith healer for her skin condition. The community around Adela, the faith healer, includes those who are immersed in Filipino traditions and others who are becoming more American. Characters also speak in multiple dialects, sometimes only understanding each other when speaking English.
The book’s structure made it somewhat hard going for me, especially early on. The book opens with a prologue about Paz. I was fascinated by Paz’s story, if a little annoyed by the unnecessary use of second person, and it was startling and a little irritating to realize that the bulk of the book was about someone else entirely, with Paz serving as only a minor character. The early Hero-centric chapters were sometimes slow, and the flashbacks to her past in the Philippines often seemed to come out of nowhere. I realize that this was probably intentional, meant to show how past trauma can completely interrupt one’s present life, but the transitions from present to past were jarring, especially when the world of the novel is still being built and characters are still being introduced.
As the book goes on, there are fewer flashbacks (I think indicating Hero’s own healing), and it was easier to stick with the story. At this point, I was moved by Hero’s growing love for Rosalyn and their tentative steps into a relationship. This relationship, as well as her attachment to Roni, seem to ground Hero in the present, and so the narrative itself becomes more grounded.
On the whole, I liked a lot of the ideas in this book and grew to really care about the characters. It was, I think, longer than it really needed to be, and the early chapters could have been simplified without losing the main message about trauma. I’m not against flashbacks, but literary fiction seems to be too reliant these days on non-chronological storytelling. I’d like to see more writers telling a straightforward story from beginning to end. This book is at its best when it leaves the tricks behind and just focuses on Hero’s new life.