The Mortifications asks, answers, and asks again all the important questions about life, love, family, and fate. Why again? Because the answers change which is what you would expect when a story goes from Cuba to Connecticut by way of death threats and hostage-taking in three paragraphs. It begins with the fracturing of the Encarnación family, the father, Uxbal’s political activity inciting Soledad, the mother, to escape in the Maribel boat lift with the twins. There is a frightening scene where she threatens to kill her son Ulises if Uxbal does not let the their daughter Isabel come with her, and their subsequent flight to Connecticut, far away from the Cubans of Miami who might keep memories alive. So much, so fast tells you from the beginning that author Derek Palacio is not going to waste your time.
The first part of The Mortifications is called The Land and it tells the story of their immigration success. Soledad finds work, the children go to school and they grow and prosper. Soledad finds new love and Ulises finds Latin and agronomy and Isabel finds religious passion. But all is not right, Isabel’s religious fervor is rooted in a promise made to her father, a promise she cannot fulfill in America so she transfers her vow from her father to the church, taking a vow of silence and entering a novitiate. Ulises, employed by Henri Willems, the tobacco farmer who is his mother’s lover, excels and writes and writes and writes about tobacco, writings that Willems sends off to be published in trade journals and magazines. Even in staid and traditional Connecticut, Palacio weaves the magic of magical realism in Isabel’s mysticism and Ulises’ classicism and extraordinary growth.
All of a sudden, a letter comes from Uxbal, their father, after all these years. He read an article and wrote to Ulises and revived their memories of Cuba and of their father. This is a single chapter section, called The Sound, an interstices that shifts the narrative of their lives.
The usual American migration story focuses on the immigrant struggle to succeed and prosper in their new home. There’s not much about the longings of exile, how their lost home can be like a missing limb, an aching void, an itch that can’t be scratched. Palacio’s The Mortifications not only recognizes that aching emptiness, he sends the exiles home to scratch their itch.
Prompted by the letter, Isabel disappears. It’s obvious to everyone that she went to Cuba and when Soledad gets breast cancer, she sends Ulises to Cuba to look for her. This is the third section, The Sea. When the book begins in The Land, Ulises does not believe in fate. When The Sea begins, Ulises recognizes he was fated to return. Eventually, so are Soledad and Henri, all coming together with Isabel and Uxbal, not so much to answer questions, find resolution or solve anything at all, really, but to pose the eternal, unknowable questions of fate, family, love, knowing and unknowing and what does it really matter. In the end, the twins Ulises and Isabel struggle with the question of what people need to know of their lives, what must be told and what must not be told and find different answers.
The Mortifications is an excellent, engrossing and deeply moving novel. Palacio has an ability to write you deeply into a scene so you feel the wind, the heat, hear the sounds and smell the bouquet or the stench. There is a lot of stench, but you won’t care. You will sink into his book and not come up for air. I don’t recommend trying to read a chapter or two before bed because you will find yourself at 4 a.m. wondering where the night went.