Ordinary people exist and endure lives punctuated by extraordinary events shaping subsequent actions and reactions. Cheng Pan, a young Chinese man dreaming of escaping a mundane life, is bamboozled into immigrating to Cuba where he hopes to attain wealth and honor. Escaping the abusive sugar cane worker nightmare, he manages to become a successful entrepreneur, and frees a slave, Lucrecia, who becomes the mother of his children. The family saga then begins to alternate between his granddaughter, Chen Fang, and great-grandson, Domingo Chen. The former, who lives in China, dreams of intellectual greatness but gets caught up in her country’s momentous cycle of history. The Boxer Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution forces transformation of its academic experts, thus Chen Fang spends the majority of her later life in prison, dreaming new visions. The latter, Domingo Chen, never quite copes with his father’s suicide but is forced to deal with the prejudice that his mixed background (Chinese and African) elicits in the jungles of the Vietnam War and the streets of Manhattan. All seem to evolve into realizing that a peaceful, happy life lies in the ordinary events, places, and relationships that belie the changing vicissitudes of history.
Cristina Garcia doesn’t offer the reader much substantial characterization but presents an exquisitely lyrical presentation of everything these characters observe, weaving together accurate descriptions with Chinese poetry, jokes, and almost surrealistic dialogue. Understatement is often quite effectively used as the reader seems to catch up with the potent impact of individual scenes, as if the author is saying, “This is what it’s like to live history,” rather than analyze it. Holding onto cultural and familial roots promises survival for these remarkable immigrants, a vision currently being restored in Cuban culture and one the author has faithfully depicted.