Title/Author: Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer by Jamie Figueora #ARC #debutnovel #debutauthor
In a nutshell (Publisher): A sister trying to hold back her brother from the edge of the abyss, for readers of Jesmyn Ward and Tommy Orange.
In the tourist town of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, in the aftermath of their mother’s passing, two siblings spend a final weekend together in their childhood home. Seeing her brother, Rafa, careening toward a place of no return, Rufina devises a bet: if they can make enough money performing for privileged tourists in the plaza over the course of the weekend to afford a plane ticket out, Rafa must commit to living. If not, Rufina will make her peace with Rafa’s own plan for the future, however terrifying it may be.
As the siblings reckon with generational and ancestral trauma, set against the indignities of present-day prejudice, other strange hauntings begin to stalk these pages: their mother’s ghost kicks her heels against the walls; Rufina’s vanished child creeps into her arms at night; and above all this, watching over the siblings, a genderless, flea-bitten angel remains hell-bent on saving what can be saved.
Let’s just take a moment and check out the cover. Isn’t it gorgeous? The wavy lines that weave and twirl, forming almost like side profiles of human faces, and how the colors come together; its cover alone gave me that sense of mystique, allure, begging to be unraveled. It was love at first sight for me. Now, did the story live up to its story? This is a tough question I’m about to answer.
So. I’m in two minds about this book. On one hand, I love its poetic prose – quiet, dreamy and elegant; words sang like poetry, “Heaviness settle in her lungs. Dread is a slow act of suffocation.” (pg 96), you can tell how much love was put into it. On the other hand, the words required so much of me that I found myself losing track of the story. So, as it took me quite a while to get used to the style, my appreciation for the story only started half way through, when things started to make more sense, although I had to go back and forth to connect the dots that I missed.
Let me give you a sense of the writing:
“Time does not step, moment by moment, into the future. Rather, it twirls in an all-encompassing, multidirectional way, not unlike a nest of roots, which truly seems incomprehensible to those accustomed to noticing only the obvious. No need to confuse yourself with the difficult task of perceptibility for now. The angel has never attempted an explanation, but here is this weekend, the gamble of it. Here are these two lives.” pg 18, 19 (page in ARC, may differ in published copy)
So, what’s this book about? It’s mainly about the half siblings (different fathers) – Rufina, 30, Rafa 28, who were trying to deal with the death of their mother, Rosalinda, each coping with it rather differently. They earned a living by performing in a plaza, in a tourist town, referred to as “a place of magic” in travel magazines, called Ciudad de Tres Hermanas, with Rafa playing a guitar without strings, and Rufina singing about her dead baby. While trying to come to terms with the death of her mother, Rufina was also dealing with the trauma and loss of her baby, and at the same time trying to save her Rafa, who was suicidal after the mother’s death.
To help him, Rufina proposed a challenge – if they can make enough money performing over the weekend, Rafa will leave home and live on an island. Reluctantly, he agreed. Over the course of 3 days, we were given a glimpse into their lives, not only as siblings, but also as children to Rosalinda, who after her death, still lingered in their house, haunting and talking to them; and we learned of the Explorer, Rosalinda’s white ‘husband’, through Rafa and Rufina’s memories of him.
The entire book felt very dreamy and fairytale-like; the writing blurred the lines between reality and fantasy, one that I had a hard time grasping in the beginning especially when I was trying to make sense of it all, asking myself, what’s happening here, who’s this and why are they here, what am I supposed to pay attention to; and it also had fable-like character names like The Explorer, Grandmothers to All, the angel, and the Original Enduring Ones, ahh…I mustn’t forget the house too, the silent, constant observer of their lives, who provided the protection they needed.
And don’t be deceived by the size of book, because it is packed with heavy themes, like love and loss, family, resilience, trauma and tragedy, that would sure to bear their weight on you as you turn the pages. Despite being a character-driven book, the characters I felt, kept me at a distance, and its plot seemed, if I may use this term, somewhat ‘floating’. At times, reading got pretty challenging, but there was something ‘hypnotic’ and mysterious about the tone and voice of the story, that just made me want to keep reading.
The siblings had a complicated relationship with their mother, and they felt like they never really knew her; her past, an enigma, as her story changed every time she told about “her legendary escape, the long migration”, it was as though, she kept holding back, not wanting to relive her painful past. Hence, they relied on the Explorer to define them, as did their mother, who was happy to do so; happy to leave her past and to be someone else, “All trauma momentarily lifted”.
The Explorer imposed his vision or views of them on them, like they were his art pieces, “‘Collaging them'” was the term he used for his art. When living with them, he started to “accessorize the mother (Roslinda),” selecting items “that matched his idea of her” – embroidered dresses and shawls, “flowers in her hair”, molding her “into something far exotic than she’d been able to create on her own” and even referred to her as “the territory [he] has been in search of.”
Soon he started dressing up Rufina and Rafa too. Each weekend when he took them to perform at the plaza, he gave them new names, depending on the country and the culture that inspired him, to “help forget who you were. Instead you’ll just be who you are right now.” And seeing how Rufina looked up to him was so heartbreaking; she viewed him as a father figure, pined for his attention, happy when he gave her his time and did everything to please him , so much so that she bore him a baby, who didn’t live long.
While having only each other to rely on, the siblings also had others who looked out for them, like Grandmothers to All, who saved Rosalinda, women who Rufina wished her mother had been, who’d love and hold her; the angel, who watched over them, she can be seen by others, but always “out of focus in shots”, and the kind-hearted Officer Lucio, who had long been in love with Rufina.
This book opened my eyes to see and view the life of others, through the eyes of a tourist, how often we romanticize the lives of people of color in our travels, and their struggles, cultures and beliefs, how we expect to always see them in their traditional clothes, dancing or performing for us in a certain place, like in this case, a plaza, where a husband and wife were the focus of the sibling’s performance, where ‘tourists mistake her (Rufina) for a fairytale’, and how easily we forget them the instant we leave the place, with only paraphernalia, trinkets or souvenirs serving as memories.
Reflecting now, I’m starting to appreciate this little novel even more. I intend to give this a reread when the time is right, and I’m
almost certain that I’d enjoy it more the second time.
Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer is an atmospheric tale about trauma and tragedy, family, love and loss, brimming with magic and mystic. If you’re looking for a new, original voice and a book that offers a unique, ethereal-like reading experience, give this a gander!Tweet
When reading this, just make sure you’re away from distractions, because this book calls for your full attention, as it should.
Much thanks to Catapult for gifting me this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are mine.
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thoughts!