Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Darkness on the Edge of Town

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.


Anonymous said...

Your remark about driving east of LA hurts.

mary_m said...

Okay, okay... it's only that I once took a really emotionally scarring drive to Riverside, and have never been the same since.

Let's see... good things about the terrain one hour east of Los Angeles.

1. Pomona is fun to say.
2. There is a cool drive-in movie theater in Riverside.
3. Ontario means you can get off the 10 and start breathing normally again.

That's really all I can think of. But to be fair, I've really only experienced the counties of Riverside and San Berdoo on a drive-through basis. So, no hard feelings?

Anonymous said...

No hard feelings. Parts of the Inland Empire are hell holes - San Bernardino, Rialto, Colton - and others are very nice - Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Claremont.