In the Name of Salome
Alvarez alternates between the story of Salome Urena, a poet in the politically turbulent Dominican Republic of the nineteenth century and that of her daughter Camilla, a professor of Spanish at Vassar College. Although frail and sickly, with a less than faithful husband, Salome is a compelling character whose poetry inspires her countrymen. Unfortunately, Camilla is destined to live in her mother’s shadow as well as be eclipsed by her famous father and brothers. The reader is left to decide if she finds her own voice.
Not only does the story alternate between the two narratives of mother and daughter, but Camilla’s narrative is not in chronological order. This technique serves to explain more about Camilla than might otherwise be revealed, but, in the end, she is not as absorbing a character as Salome, and I was not as engrossed when the narrative switched to her story.
Alvarez does not fill in a great deal of back story regarding the upheaval in the Dominican Republic, but instead uses the act of a woman writing revolutionary poetry (and not just politically revolutionary) to render the mood of the time. The setting moves between the Dominican Republic, Cuba, upstate New York, and chilly Minnesota, and Alvarez is expert at evoking the atmosphere of each place. In the United States locales, Camilla and her family feel displaced, and the tone takes a palpable shift when the setting returns to Latin America despite the uneasiness caused by the revolutions.
In her author’s note, Alvarez reveals that Salome and Camilla are real people that she has turned into fictional characters. A mark of Alvarez’s talent might be that she has sparked my interest in investigating the real Salome. Recommended.