Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza
Drive an hour east of Los Angeles, and most likely, you'll want to keep on driving. However, in his debut novel, Espinoza settles into daily life in Agua Mansa, a fictionalized town in San Bernardino County, and transforms it into a place you don't mind visiting for a couple hundred pages.
At the center of the novel is Perla, a woman in her 70s who runs the Botanica Oshun. Here, you can buy a love potion, an herbal tea, or a rosary. The candle you buy at Botanica Oshun might be used for prayer, or it might be used to drive off your roommate's junkie girlfriend. Whether Perla is a bruja, a curandera, or a saint depends on how her customers perceive her, but she helps them all.
Point of view alternates between Perla and the residents of Agua Mansa, and structurally, the novel is reminiscent of Walter Mosley's Socrates Fortlow books. Some characters are recurring, while others step into the spotlight for a moment, then disappear. Memorable among them are Azucar, a transvestite who finds herself thrust into motherhood, and Rosa, an insecure, overweight teenager who forges an unexpected friendship with a sensitive ex-con.
More chilling, however, is the story of Rodrigo, a desperate teenager who begins showing up in Perla's store. What we eventually learn about Rodrigo and how he came to be in Agua Mansa speaks to the idea that some evil is bigger than God and magic combined.
It's appropriate that the real Agua Mansa is now a ghost town, because overarching each story in the sense that the town is changing, and not necessarily for the better, and the decisions characters make to adapt or leave is at the heart of the book. While dark, the book is not bleak, and Espinoza punctuates the most disturbing moments with warm, realistic scenes of domestic and community life.
If you like...: intimate stories of community life like The Women of Brewster Place and The Bean Trees, this book is for you.