Katharine Coldiron Reviews The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older

The Book of Lost Saints, Daniel José Older (Macmillan 978-1-25018-581-5, $26.99, 336pp, hardcover) November 2019.

In all honesty, I can’t recommend Daniel José Older’s new novel. Older has oodles of fans, enviable sales, and even a Star Wars novel under his belt, so take this opinion as one among many – but the more I try to make the novel’s intention and execution cohere enough for a critical assessment, the more it falls apart.

The Book of Lost Saints begins with a fragmentary memory of a dead chicken in a butcher shop. Over many pages, it becomes clear that the narrator is a ghost, a Cuban girl caught up in the revolutionary movements of the 1950s. Marisol, the ghost, fixates on her nephew, Ramón, a DJ in early 2000s New Jersey. She passes him the story of her life through chronologically organized dreams, which open most chapters. Soon enough, these dreams pique Ramón’s interest, and he searches for the real story of Marisol’s life via his living relatives and, later, a trip to Cuba. At the same time, he grapples with the threat of the Cuban gangster family Gutierrez, who are also wrapped up with Marisol’s fate, and with his helpless love for Aliceana, a Filipino doctor at the hospital where he works security. Ultimately, he does learn what happened to Marisol, and so does she.

Many virtues dot and stipple this book: the wisecracking dialogue, the crystalline detail, the beautifully tuned descriptions, the pervasive sense that this work comes straight from the heart of its author. But it has many more disadvantages than virtues.

For one, The Book of Lost Saints feels much longer than its page count; the material is often so intense, or the prose so compressed, that reading more than a few pages of it is exhausting. I was wrung out by the time I reached the end, and not in a good way. For two, the book is predictable in its largest plot movements. I guessed the true significance of two characters Marisol narrated about hundreds of pages before these relationships were revealed. For three, Older uses monotonously high stakes to add heft and tension. Marisol continually worries about her ghostly vulnerability, although no consequences of that vulnerability actually materialize; the torture and imprisonment she undergoes in Castro’s Cuba seems to have killed her, really, for real this time, until she opens the next chapter. The final quarter of the book uses remarkably unearned twists and turns to arrive at an ending that’s happy, but so contorted around itself that it has no believability.

Plus, the book’s constant swerving between styles gives the reader whiplash. When deeper inside Marisol’s consciousness, Older writes quite lyrically: “The simple physics of emptiness and the thick lines around it offer up whole libraries of information I never could have imagined – histories, both banal and grand, and the flow and sweep of emotions that trail behind each of us in elegant, phosphorescent capes.” However, when Marisol moves to the background and Ramón and his friends are closer to the surface, the style is more like commercial fiction, broad and clean: “And it’s an unbelievably slow day. No one to restrain or tussle with. No righteous fuckup to direct his burgeoning anger at. Nothing. It’s probably for the best. Ramón is a gentle giant, self-aware enough to be cautious with his mighty limbs, even when provoked by the direst of insults….” The novel also swings between languages, putting whole passages of dialogue in Spanish. Which is fine – it’s a novel about Cubans and Cuban Americans, and the mix of languages is appropriate, even liberating. But the style shifts don’t go together as easily as the characters swap English for Spanish. It’s a series of bad fits.

I wish I had better things to say about The Book of Lost Saints. Generously, it’s a colorful mix of styles, backdrops, ideas, and time periods, telling a meaningful story about the long-term effects of Castro’s Cuba on today’s Cuban Americans. Even more generously, it’s a lyrical tribute to those who suffered under that revolution, and a warning about its ambiguity: “To exist in a regime with its foot pressed against your throat is to constantly be in a state of betrayal.” But in the actual reading, no novel has frustrated me more in years. Its cacophony of personalities (Marisol, Ramón, other almost-narrators) never resolves into melody, and it topples its own mythos altogether in the last few chapters, in the same cheap and self-contradictory way as “it was all a dream” stories. The reader may look on this novel as a bold literary experiment from a popular writer, but, in my view, it’s a failed experiment.

Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.

This review and more like it in the March 2020 issue of Locus.

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