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Song of the Water Saints by Nelly Rosario

Song of the Water Saints

by Nelly Rosario

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Nelly Rosario's first novel, a very obvious love letter to her Dominican homeland and heritage, is a novel that wants to be too many things and, ultimately, is strangled by its ambition. A bildungsroman with three distinct stories to tell, those stories become sadly less enthralling as they go along, and don't quite fulfill the promise with which the novel opens.

The novel tells the story of three women of Dominican descent: the coming-of-age of Graciela, an restless young woman who grows up in the time of the American occupation; her unwanted daughter Mercedes, who eventually emigrates to the United States; and Mercedes's granddaughter Leila, who grows up in New York City but ends up sharply resembling Graciela. The narrative of Graciela is by far the most intriguing, taking her across the island and across cultures, tracing an arc between her impulsive origins and her eventual insanity and decline from the ravages of syphilis. Her tale drives the first half of the novel and, even at its weakest moments, shows great beauty and purpose.

Once Graciela dies, however, the story wanders aimlessly until its flat conclusion. Mercedes, the neglected daughter, is not given enough space in her youth to emerge as an interesting character, so we don't care much about her as she ages either. Also unhelpful is the fact that Rosario's pace becomes inexplicably rushed after Graciela's death, such that even if we had reason to care, Mercedes simply doesn't have enough time to develop.

Leila is perhaps the least convincing character of all, a young woman whose language loses the rough-edged beauty of Graciela's and is instead childish and vulgar. Rosario's view of New York has none of the adoration or nostalgia as that of the Dominican sections, and Leila has even less development than Mercedes, which costs her the reader's sympathies. There seems to be an attempt in her narrative to comment on American culture, immigration, and the nature of family ties, but it's lost in Rosario's rush to reach a hackneyed and somewhat foregone conclusion about Leila's relationship to her great-grandmother.

All told, Rosario's novel reaches but doesn't quite grasp the sophistication of the multi-layered narrative she wants to accomplish. Rather than accelerating toward its end, the novel's need for cyclicality instead throws it into a decrescendo, a disappointing conclusion to what could have been an interesting and more fully realized work in more capable hands.
  dczapka | Dec 3, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375420878, Hardcover)

In Nelly Rosario's beautifully written family saga Song of the Water Saints, Graciela, an unwilling mother and a halfhearted wife, spends her days imagining sea voyages and tracing shapes in the clouds. She is so restless, yet so trapped in Dominican village life, that she wakes at night to rub camphor oil into her itching feet. Finally, a fortuneteller advises her to "stop living between nostalgia and hope." It is up to Graciela's daughter and her children to make use of the freedoms that eluded Graciela, whose life was shaped not only by poverty but also by the brutal U.S. military occupation of the Dominican Republic, the brief flowering of a belle époque in the 1920s, and the 30-year military dictatorship of Trujillo. With an almost painterly attention to foreground and background, Rosario stresses the importance of these events without letting them overshadow her richly imagined world. Song of the Water Saints is an unusually assured debut from a promising writer. --Regina Marler

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:19 -0400)

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