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The Book of Lost Saints


The Book of Lost Saints

Packed tight with lively dialogue, historical sensitivity and a hearty dose of magical realism, young adult and middle grade phenomenon Daniel José Older's departure from stories for young readers is an epic saga from an author at the absolute top of his game.

THE BOOK OF LOST SAINTS is told from one omniscient point of view, but centers on two main characters: Marisol, the foul-mouthed ghost of a girl who vanished during the Cuban Revolution, and her nephew, Ramon, a talented DJ who, feeling a bit restless in his personal life, leaps at the chance to find the truth behind his family’s stories and, more importantly, their silences. When the spirit of Marisol is pulled to Ramon in his messy, grungy bedroom in New Jersey, she begins imparting memories of her childhood in Cuba into his dreams, hoping that he will find himself hooked by her stories and will begin to track down the truth about her death and what it means for her family.

Older captures the attention of his readers instantly by sharing the story of the day Marisol met Gomez, the man who ultimately would lead to her family’s downfall by sending her home with a mysterious package for her older sister. Though we do not know yet what the package holds, we already can see the beginnings of political unrest and violence through Marisol’s youthful, but not at all naive, eyes.

"Equal parts violent, pensive and magic, THE BOOK OF LOST SAINTS is a masterwork of culture, history and trauma.... Brash and haunting, Marisol is a character you won’t soon forget, and, with any luck, Older is an author who won’t stop raising the voices of characters like her."

Meanwhile, decades later and worlds apart, Ramon is himself at a bit of a crossroads. A hospital security guard by day and a DJ by night, he is preparing to have “the talk” with a non-girlfriend and is dealing with ever-increasing worry about his mother, Nilda. Marisol’s least favorite sister, Nilda is experiencing some serious agoraphobia following the September 11th attacks, but she is also guarding dark secrets that Marisol is desperate to bring to life through Ramon. As Ramon stumbles through his life, bumming cigarettes, drinking beers and crafting pitch-perfect songs for an increasingly fervent audience, Marisol watches carefully, waiting for the appropriate moments to insert herself and choosing the right memories to galvanize Ramon into action. Spurred by the glimpses into Marisol’s life, Ramon decides it is time not only to learn about his family members who did not make it to America, but to embrace his own Cuban roots.

Alternating between these two generations, Older reveals to us a family both torn and bolstered by hurt. The one thing Ramon’s elders --- Marisol aside --- seem to agree on is that there is no reason to talk about the violence and terror of the Cuba they left behind, and yet they are all tied to their pasts so tightly that moving forward seems impossible. When at last Ramon takes interest in their secrets, he crosses paths with local gangsters, experiences Cuba for the first time, and discovers the truth behind Marisol’s life under Batista’s reign. Meanwhile, in Marisol’s memories, we learn of three very different sisters, and the ways that the revolution pulled them apart, broke them down and sent them alone into the world.

Any reader who has heard about the Cuban Revolution and its impact will no doubt anticipate that this is not an easy read --- violence lurks on every page, and Older crafts a sense of unease that permeates even the lightest moments. But what makes THE BOOK OF LOST SAINTS even more interesting is its third person narrator, a spirit who can see and know all, except for her own history. This perspective can be difficult to adjust to at first, especially during Marisol’s more vulgar moments --- watching her nephew make love, for instance. Older never holds back from any detail, no matter how uncomfortable, and this can be jarring, but he is sharp and perceptive with his gaze. Never once does he give us an unwieldy or uninteresting detail --- and, perhaps even more impressively, never once does he stray from the expansive and explosive timeline of Cuba’s past, present and future.

The trauma Older writes of through Marisol and her descendants is one that lingers for decades, long past the point when others stop asking if one is okay. And what better way to illustrate a pain you feel but cannot remember the source of than through the eyes of a ghost struggling to move on? These strings of unrest and distrust tie Older’s characters together as easily as they bind them to the past, creating a web of intricate lies, hurts and betrayals.

I’d be remiss not to mention Older’s dialogue at least once in this review. He effortlessly switches between Spanish and English, peppering in numerous colorful Cubanismos that are so full of meaning that anyone can understand them, regardless of how many languages you speak. In including this dose of culture, he also points out the differences in dialects and native tongues, creating a vivid and passionate tone that makes his dialogue an absolute joy to read.

Equal parts violent, pensive and magic, THE BOOK OF LOST SAINTS is a masterwork of culture, history and trauma. Depicting both pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba, as well as the perspectives of numerous Cuban emigrants, this book is a poetic and evocative rumination on the endurance of a people forced to reckon with the unforgivable. Brash and haunting, Marisol is a character you won’t soon forget, and, with any luck, Older is an author who won’t stop raising the voices of characters like her. He is a force to be reckoned with, and if this spellbinding book is any indication of his future endeavors, readers can expect to see him at the top of numerous “Best Of” and awards lists for many years to come.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on November 8, 2019

The Book of Lost Saints
by Daniel José Older

  • Publication Date: November 5, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Imprint
  • ISBN-10: 1250185815
  • ISBN-13: 9781250185815