The Book of Lost Saints
by Daniel José Older
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 5, 2019
Daniel José Older's The Book of Lost Saints will be published in one month, but I was lucky to get an advance e-book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. As much as I have loved his Shadowshaper series, this is several levels above it. Powerful, emotional, full of pain and anger, but also hope, love, and forgiveness. It is only peripherally a fantasy, with an ethereal spirit desperate to retrieve lost memories, the where, how, and why of their death. The story is written in first-person by that spirit, or...maybe it's just the troubled dreams of Ramón Rodriguez, a Cuban-American hospital security guard, and amateur musician, trying to piece together a family mystery. At heart it's a tale of betrayal, but also of reconciliation, of family obligations and conflicts. The title refers to a book about the saints, but Padre Sebastian makes it clear he thinks there are many who qualified for that honor but were never canonized, so it is important to be aware and open to recognizing those traits in everyone you encounter.
Older is Cuban-American, and in addition to his writing career he is also a musician, and a former EMT. His experiences inform several well-crafted sequences. You can almost hear and feel the beats of Ramón's music, and scenes in ambulances and emergency rooms are so realistic you can feel the tension and smell the blood. And this is a story about Cuba, those who stayed and those who fled. Ramón is plagued with distressing dreams about a woman he never knew, except through family photos, his tía (aunt) Marisol. His mother never spoke of her younger sister, and very little of her early life in Cuba. Due to his dreams, Ramón is compelled to seek answers, finally learning that his mother's older sister, Isabel, had committed suicide shortly after the revolution. She had apparently been sympathetic to the rebels, but later had a change of heart. In each of his dreams, Ramón learns a little more about Marisol, of how she was aware of Isabel's activities, and the reason for her suicide. Yet Marisol cannot remember other events, and official accounts say she was among the "disappeared." She is using Ramón as a conduit for information she lacks. We learn how the revolution tore many families apart, how both sides branded the other as traitors. The "present" part of the action takes place around 2003 (the Elián Gonzáles incident is said to have been about four years prior), so before Castro's death, before the attempts to reestablish open relations with Cuba. Even today the tensions are high, still a volatile subject between exiles and loyalists.
I had made a note of one thing I thought to criticize, but later decided it wasn't a fault. Marisol had only been sixteen when she "disappeared," had lived a relatively sheltered life in a suburb of Havana, but some of her exposition had references to things I didn't think she would have been aware of, especially after an early comment that she didn't know what "googled" meant. Then I decided she had picked up more information while inhabiting Ramón's body, which seemed to be confirmed later when she used a medical term after being with Aliceana, Ramón's girlfriend, a resident at the hospital where he works. There were a few things I thought might be clues that something else was going on, but I won't elaborate on that. I can't say much more, other than it's highly recommended, a strong contender for my favorite novel of the year. Most ARCs I've received caution about not quoting until checking with the final book, but this didn't have that stipulation, and even if it did I'd have ignored it. Padre Sebastian was one of Marisol's closest friends, and something she says about him could easily be a description of the author; "Padre Sebastian loves words, and his love of words is like a tornado—it swirls around him and widens and then catches you up in it and soon you love words too and you're not even sure why...[He] treats language like a lover; he caresses it and wonders about it, turns it over and over in his mind, lets it change his whole world as he explores it deeper." You'll want to explore the words Older weaves around this complex, intense, disturbing, but ultimately inspiring, and redemptive tale.
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