One Filipino migrants struggle to live her American dream after two years in a prison camp induces for a blazingly fearless debut novel
While serving as a medic in the revolutionary New People’s Army in the 1980 s, Geronima, called Hero for short, is captured by the Filipino military. After two years in a prison camp she weighs less than 90 lb and cannot bear to be touched. Hero’s mutilated thumbs and cigarette-burn scars are not easy to hide but she maintains her emotional meanders to herself after joining her uncle’s family in California at the beginning of America Is Not the Heart .
Hero guards another secret too: she favor daughters. In this blazingly fearless debut fiction, Elaine Castillo renders a faggot hero with a history of suffering on a par with tragic Jude from Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life ( 2015 ). She also probes the same disconcerting topic: can such a profoundly traumatic past ever actually be redeemed by love?
Much of the fiction is set at the start of 1990 s. Heaving with digressive sub-stories, untranslated dialect and jarring gearshifts in style, at first America Is Not the Heart somewhat resembles the hyperactive maximalist fiction that reached its zenith with David Foster Wallace during that decade.
In a startling opening riff in the second person, we gratify nurse Paz as she makes the leap from the Philippines to the San Francisco Bay Area in the hope of a better life( and so paving the route for new spouse Pol, and eventually his niece Hero, to follow on family visas ). For a Filipino generation who spent their lives” dreaming of America, singing its lyrics” the hardships of settling in their adoptive country are powerfully voiced here:” As for loving America or not loving America, these aren’t your problems, either. Your term for love is survival. Everything else is a story that isn’t about you .”
The American dream offers a salvation myth, which lures seekers to a country where a surgeon like Pol can become a” poorly paid security guard at a computer chip company “. Frequently harking back to the privilege of the clan in the Philippines, we feel girded for a panoramic household saga about the disillusionment of the Filipino-American diaspora.
After resolving on Hero, however, the novel observes its feet, all the better for planting them on modest ground. Hero’s new life in America is confined to cleaning Paz’s house and ferrying her daughter Roni to school until she satisfies a beguiling makeup artist named Rosalyn. Swapping exuberances for manga comics and British indie rock leads in time to red-hot sex crashes in vehicles and kitchens.
Hero’s circle slowly expands. Despite her broken thumbs, she can manage work in a eatery thanks to some dextrous adaptations, but it remains to be seen whether she can open her damaged heart to the besotted Rosalyn. Flashbacks to her stint in the guerrilla insurgency leave us in no doubt about why this is so excruciating for Hero. The novel is a possibility set in an unpicturesque part of the Bay Area- and Hero takes her sweet time to even visit the” glamorous red-bridged seaside city” to the north- but Castillo infuses their fragile fag romance with a luminous naturalism.
At a period when the US president is making ominous swipes against” chain migration”, the hugely talented Castillo provides a nuanced and persuasive take from the other side. America, to many disenchanted settlers, may not be the heart, but it sometimes provides a more hospitable corner where someone like Hero can begin to regain her own:” It was only that a small, small door inside of her had been left ajar , not thrown open, and things started to emerge, sluggish and night-blind .”
America Is Not the Heart is at its most moving when tracking the smaller, arduous steps by which consolidation actually happens, whether social, culture or emotional. It seems that some dreamings, albeit the ones not outsized enough to be blazoned in neon, can come true in America after all.
* America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo is published by Atlantic( PS14. 99 ). To order a transcript for PS12. 74 go toguardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders merely. Phone orders min p& p of PS1. 99
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