Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea


An epic mystical drama of a young woman's sudden sainthood in late-19th century Mexico. It is 1889 and civil war is brewing in Mexico. A 16 year old girl, Teresita, illegitimate but beloved daughter of the wealthy and powerful rancher Don Tomas Urrea, wakes from the strangest dream. This passionate and rebellious young woman has arisen from death with a power to heal - but it will take all her faith to endure the trials that await her now that she has become the 'Saint of Cabora.'
Amazon Description

In my last post (a review of One Hundred Years of Solitude) I talked about a magic realist approach to historical fiction, I then read The Hummingbird's Daughter, which is a fine example of what I was talking about. The book's author is well known for his non-fiction. He researched the story of Teresa Urrea - the Saint of Cabora - for over twenty years, garnering information from source materials, history books, visiting shamen  and all the miracles included the book are from accounts of Teresa's life. There are aspects of the story that are familiar to me from hagiographies throughout church history, for example Teresa having risen from the dead smells of roses. 

In Teresa we have a traditional healer, trained in Mayo medicine and beliefs, which are combined with the Catholic religious beliefs of central America. These are portrayed realistically. We are seeing the world through Teresa's eyes and those of her followers. The book does not attempt to analyse or dismiss their beliefs, which I find refreshing. As a historian I approve of this approach, it seems to me more accurate than historical novels which try to give rationalist accounts. I am extremely excited by this use of magic realism. As Urrea said in an interview: I think the magic of fiction is that in many ways it's more true than non-fiction. By that I mean that fiction can take you into truths of feeling and it lends itself better to the kind of trance that allows a reader to smell and taste the world I'm trying to evoke. 

I have written in several previous reviews of how magic realism is often used to tell the stories of the oppressed and marginalized  This story of a woman who gave voice to the sufferings of the "People", the native peoples of Mexico, and became the focus of their hopes almost had to be a magic realist novel. 

In addition it is a story of a strong woman in a very masculine world, which as I pointed out in my review of Nights at the Circus is again well suited to the magic realist treatment. As some of you reading this blog will be aware, I too write magic realist novels. One of the reasons I delayed reading this book is that I have also written about a woman healer and did not want to be influenced by Urrea's novel. The motif of a woman healer who is perceived as threatening the male establishment and who is revered by her supporters as a saint, (a view she rejects) appears in my book too. This polarizing view of women as either witches or angels, nuns or whores, rather than as just strong women is to be found in all ages and cultures and magic realism has the subtlety to explore this conflicting duality. 

I realize I have been speaking about the magical in this book and not the realism. The book is beautifully written - I have never visited Mexico but I really felt I could feel, see, smell and taste Teresa's homeland. All the characters seemed very real to me. Teresa is a spirited young woman, who does not consider herself a saint and doesn't always behave like one. Her relationship with Tomas, her father is complex and entertaining. Tomas is frustrated by her and at the same time extremely proud. Tomas himself has the double standards of his time and class, but he does have a sympathy with the People, which is explained by his backstory and which opens him up to acknowledging his illegitimate daughter. 

The realism with which the magical is treated is summed up in a tale told to Teresa by Huila, the old healer who is her mentor, about how on ascending to heaven the Virgin Mary got stuck on top of a huge cactus from where she spoke to the People.  Teresa asks what the Virgin said. Huila answers, "Get me a ladder"

Are there any faults? None that I can see. This has to be my favourite read on the magic realism challenge so far. The prose is not as dense as that in One Hundred Years of Solitude and the plot keeps you reading, which makes it an ideal recommendation to anyone interested in trying out a magic realist novel for the first time.
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1 comment:

Malcolm Campbell said...

This is probably among the top 2-3 magical realism books I've read. I have ordered the sequel, "Queen of America." Have you read that one yet?